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985 Migrants Await Port Entry in First Test for Italy's New Leaders

Humanity 1
Survivors on deck aboard the Humanity 1, October 31 (Handout image courtesy SOS Humanity)

Published Oct 31, 2022 11:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

A period of relatively unimpeded operation for migrant rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean appears to be drawing to a close. Just weeks after the election of the right-wing government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, three rescue vessels are loitering offshore with nearly 1,000 survivors aboard - and in an apparent return to regulatory patterns last seen in 2018-19, they have not been allowed to enter port. 

Tens of thousands of migrants attempt the journey from Libya to Lampedusa, Italy each year, and the number of fatal accidents on the route is high. With assistance from the EU, the militia-affiliated Libyan Coast Guard interdicts a large number of migrants at sea. Those that make it through the cordon reach Lampedusa under their own power or are rescued - either by a European government vessel, a passing merchant ship or an NGO-operated migrant rescue vessel. Migrants can transmit their position to an NGO-operated "hotline for boatpeople in distress" if needed to call attention to their circumstances.

Under the administration of former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, NGO rescue vessel operations were banned (and often criminalized). A blanket ban on rescue vessels of all kinds - including good samaritan merchant ships, a U.S. Navy transport and even Salvini's own coast guard - prompted delays and long journeys to deliver survivors to other EU nations. The bans ended after Salvini's ouster in 2019, and migrant rescue operations resumed.

On taking office on October 22, Prime Minister Meloni appointed Matteo Piantedosi, a civil servant who worked under Salvini, to head up the interior ministry. Last week Piantedosi issued a directive finding that two NGO vessels - Ocean Viking and Humanity 1 - may have operated improperly by carrying out rescues without informing the authorities first, thereby failing to “follow the rules in matters of security, border control and combating illegal immigration." The directive suggested that regional port administrations could ban them from entering Italian waters. 

As of Monday, the Ocean Viking, Humanity 1 and an additional vessel, the Geo Barents, were all at sea in the Central Mediterranean and awaiting permission to enter port and offload survivors. Collectively they were carrying about 985 people, some of whom have been aboard for a week, and the only disembarkations allowed to date have been for medical cases. Requests to the Italian government for port of refuge have gone unanswered, according to SOS Humanity, the operator of Humanity 1. 

“It is unacceptable and against international law to leave survivors stranded at sea for over a week and prolong their suffering," asserted Mirka Schäfer, Advocacy Officer of SOS Humanity. “We are again witnessing how both the rule of law and humanity are going overboard at the European external border of the Central Mediterranean.”

A good samaritan vessel, the freighter Christina V, was allowed to enter the port of Trapani with 150 rescued migrants aboard on Saturday without apparent difficulty. The vessel's experience suggests that commercial vessels that engage in a one-time rescue do not face port bans (as they did in 2018-19). 

Meloni opposes maritime migration to Italy, and she has previously suggested that it might be possible to "repatriate migrants back to their countries and then sink the boats that rescued them." More recently, she has called for "stopping illegal departures, finally breaking up the trafficking of human beings in the Mediterranean."