Migrant rescue boat reaches Lampedusa, defying Italy's orders to stay out

Guglielmo Mangiapane, REUTERS | The rescue ship carrying stranded migrants sails near the island of Lampedusa, Italy, on June 26, 2019.

The charity ship Sea-Watch entered Italian waters on Wednesday with 42 migrants aboard, defying an order from Rome to stay away and provoking a furious response from Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.


The captain of the German-owned boat, which flies the Dutch flag, had decided to head to the island of Lampedusa because the situation on board was "now more desperate than ever", the group said in a statement.

It said captain Carola Rackete felt that maritime emergency law permitted the ship to enter Italian waters.

In his first reaction, Salvini, of the far-right League party, did not mince his words.

"They are not allowed to dock, I am ready to send the police ... this has broken my balls," Salvini said in a Facebook video. In a subsequent statement, he called the Sea-Watch "an outlaw ship" and said Rome had asked the Dutch government to assume responsibility for the migrants.

An Italian cabinet spokesman said later that Rome was considering "formal initiatives" to assess failings in the behaviour of the Dutch government.

Luigi Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement which governs with the League, said charity ships insist on coming to Italy because they know it is the best way to grab media attention and therefore more donations.

He said on Facebook that when other mainstream governments turn away migrants the media don't even mention it, whereas Italy, with its rightist/anti-establishment coalition, has become "the stage of the Mediterranean".

Shortly after the ship entered Italian waters without permission, Italian coastguard boats went out from Lampedusa to flank it.

According to a decree approved in June, the Interior Ministry has the power to deny access to territorial waters to vessels that it considers are a risk to security or public order, and to fine them.

‘I'm ready to go to jail’

Rackete, the ship's captain, defied the Italian government after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Rome had no obligation to allow migrants to disembark from the vessel, although it was obliged to offer assistance at sea.

"I have decided to enter the port of Lampedusa. I know what I risk, but the 42 shipwrecked on board are exhausted. I take them to safety," she said on the ship's Twitter account.

"I'm ready to go to jail if somebody would prosecute me for that and to defend myself in court if need be because what we are doing is right," the 31-year-old German added in a video post.

Rackete's NGO had asked the ECHR to impose "interim measures" on Italy, saying the court could ask Rome to take urgent steps to resolve the standoff to "prevent serious and irremediable violations of human rights".

The NGO's spokesman Ruben Neugebereger said the crew had previously requested permission to port in Malta and was turned down.

It is the latest standoff since Italy's populist government began refusing port last year to humanitarian rescue ships. Salvini claims the boat's aid migrant traffickers by waiting off the Libyan coast to pick up migrants from unseaworthy vessels that couldn't make it all the way to Europe.

The Italian minister is also trying to push the European Union to find a way to take the pressure of dealing with migrants off Italy, a main entry point due to its southern Mediterranean location.

An Italian magistrate ordered the Sea-Watch to be seized last month after it rescued dozens of migrants, accusing the crew of breaching immigration rules. It was released at the start of June and returned to the Libyan coastline.


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