Italy's far-right government turns away rescue ship with 224 refugees: ‘They will only see Italy on a postcard’

Interior minister's comments come days after he called for census of country's Roma population

Saturday 23 June 2018 08:42 BST
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The rescue vessel MV Lifeline of the NGO Mission Lifeline
The rescue vessel MV Lifeline of the NGO Mission Lifeline (Reuters)

Italy has turned away a rescue boat carrying 224 refugees with the country’s new far-right interior minister saying those on board will only see the country “on a postcard”.

Matteo Salvini‘s latest move came just a week after the Aquarius, a ship containing 630 refugees, was also turned away and forced to reroute to Spain.

Mr Salvini said the latest ship, operated by German aid group Mission Lifeline, had loaded the migrants in Libyan waters against the instructions of Italy’s coast guard – a claim the group denied, saying the passengers were rescued in international waters.

Italy suggested Malta should accept the ship and accused authorities there of being “inhumane” when they did not.

Malta’s government spokesman said in a separate statement that the country was not the competent authority because initial “search and rescue” was done by Libya and that the ship had breached its obligations to oblige by Libyan instructions.

Stranded refugees on an Italian Coast Guard boat as they are transferred from the Aquarius to Italian ships to continue the journey to Spain
Stranded refugees on an Italian Coast Guard boat as they are transferred from the Aquarius to Italian ships to continue the journey to Spain (AP)

While Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli said the ship was in Maltese search and rescue waters and in difficulty, an email to him from the Maltese military said the vessel ”has not manifested any distress”.

Spain later offered assistance to Malta.

Mr Salvini – leader of Italy’s right-wing League party – said earlier: “We cannot take in one more person. On the contrary, we want to send away a few.

“Italian ports are no longer at the disposal of traffickers. Open the Maltese ports! Open the French ports.”

He added: "They will only see Italy on a postcard".

He went on to liken rescue ships to taxi services that finish the job of refugees smugglers. And he repeatedly claimed other European Union states were not taking their share of refugees and migrants headed for Europe, a point that Italy will press in forthcoming EU meetings. He has threatened that Italy will withhold its payments to the bloc if it does not get more help on the migrant issue.

Four days ago Mr Salvini announced a census of the country’s Roma population ahead of proposed deportations. It comes after footage emerged of him calling for a cleansing of migrants from the country “street by street”.

Some 640,000 refugees have landed in Italy, mainly from Libya, since 2014 – although numbers this year have fallen with 14,500 arriving so far this year.

Mission Lifeline said those on board its boat, itself called Lifeline, were holding up well but that many were fleeing “torture, rape, slavery”. Founder Axel Steier remained defiant. He said: “The rescue of human lives must be prioritised before border control.”

The latest spat came just days after German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer weighed into the Europe’s apparent migration crisis. He warned he would give Chancellor Angela Merkel 14 days to come up with a plan to resolve Europe’s perceived immigration crisis – or he would order the country’s border police to turn back migrants.

The Czech Republic said it would do the same.

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