Italy Bars Own Coast Guard Ship from Port After Migrant Rescue

The Diciotti (file image)

Published Aug 20, 2018 7:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

Last week, the Italian government refused to allow one of its own coast guard cutters to enter an Italian port after the ship rescued nearly 200 maritime migrants. Italy's transport ministry relented on Monday and said that it would permit the vessel to dock at Catania, Sicily, but the interior ministry signaled that it would still not allow the migrants aboard to disembark. 

On Wednesday, the crew of the Diciotti rescued 190 migrants from an overloaded boat about 15 nm off the island Lampedusa, within Maltese waters. 13 individuals needed emergency treatment and were medevaced to shore, but 177 remained on board.

Italy's government insisted that Malta should receive the migrants, as the rescue occurred within its zone of authority. The Maltese government countered that the "rescue" was not a rescue: it asserted that the migrants had not wanted to board the Italian Coast Guard vessel and had tried to turn down the offer of assistance. Malta refused to allow the Diciotti to enter port and disembark the survivors. “An interception of a boat that exercises its right to free navigation in the high seas is not considered a rescue operation,” said Maltese interior minister Michael Farrugia in an online post. 

Italy's transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, said Monday that his ministry would end the standoff and allow the Diciotti to dock at Catania, Sicily. However, interior minister Matteo Salvini suggested that the 177 migrants on board should be returned to Libya if other EU countries would not agree to receive them first. 

"The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU, which is made up of 27 countries," Salvini said in a TV interview. "Let them pay us this courtesy to play their part, given that we have taken in more than 700,000 people who came by sea."

In a bid to prevent migrant arrivals, Salvini's ministry has recently denied access to a U.S. Navy fast transport, multiple NGO-operated rescue vessels, and several foreign and domestic merchant ships. Salvini, who campaigned and won election on an anti-immigration platform, has also suggested that Italian Coast Guard vessels should ignore migrants in distress. However, the case of the Diciotti is the first time that Italy's new right wing government has banned one of its own military vessels from port. 

In an interview with Corriere, Italian Coast Guard First Lt. Antonello Ciavarelli described the development as "incomprehensible" and "embarrassing." 

"The ship Diciotti is a military ship of the Italian State and is prevented from mooring in an Italian port! We obviously obey the government, but we also expect a more [steady] policy," he said. "The hope is that Italian and international politics quickly decide on how to deal with migration flows, without leaving [a lit match] in the hands of the Italian coast guard." Ciavarelli also described a series of unsettling and "unjust" social media attacks on the Italian Coast Guard, with some commentators comparing the service's work with that of human smugglers.