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Italy refuses to allow Italian ship to dock because it’s carrying migrants

It's the latest example of an increasingly hardline immigration policy from Rome.

People wait to disembark from the Italian Coast Guard vessel "Diciotti" at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily on June 19, 2018, following a rescue operation of migrants and refugees at sea. CREDIT:  GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images
People wait to disembark from the Italian Coast Guard vessel "Diciotti" at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily on June 19, 2018, following a rescue operation of migrants and refugees at sea. CREDIT: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images

An Italian-flagged ship has been refused permission to dock at Italian ports because it was carrying rescued migrants — the first time a private, domestically-registered ship has been barred from the country’s ports over its immigration policy.

The Vos Thalassa, which usually supports offshore oil and gas operations, responded to a distress call off the coast of Libya on Monday night, the Local reported. The ship then requested permission to dock in Italy but was denied. According to the BBC, Italian officials said that the Libyan coast guard was already on its way, so Vos Thalassa did not need to intervene.

This is the latest example of the increasingly hardline attitude by the Italian populist government — which promised before elections to send more than 400,000 migrants back to their country of origin.

In June, Italy and Malta rejected two vessels carrying over 350 migrants, leaving the boat in limbo. Earlier in the month the two countries refused another vessel carrying 600 migrants, forcing it to scramble for a port and eventually find safe harbor in Spain. The Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, also warned a Dutch rescue ship that same month to take its “human load” of 200 migrants to the Netherlands instead, to which the operators of the ship responded on Twitter:

Salvini also announced in June that Italian ports would be closed throughout the summer to NGO ships like Mission Lifeline. “The Italian ministry tells me as well as the Libyans, the NGOs help traffickers, consciously or not,” Salvini said. “Foreign NGOs, with foreign crews, financing a foreign flag and financed by foreign institutions will no longer set foot in Italy.” But the example of Vos Thalassa shows the Italian government willing to expand the closures to Italian ships engaged in what it calls “troublemaking”.

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During the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, Italy and Greece were taking the brunt of asylum seekers, with the Italian coastguard instrumental in rescuing thousands. The asylum seekers were then moving on further into Europe, however the implementation of strict boarder controls in countries like France, Switzerland, and Austria (as well as, most recently, Germany) has made this path nearly impossible. As a result, migrant arrivals in Italy are down nearly 80 per cent from their peak, but 160,000 asylum seekers remain stuck in Italy.

Because of its proximity to Europe and relative lawlessness after the 2011 revolution, Libya has become a gateway for migrants trying to reach Europe. Refugees come from the Middle East, war-torn countries in eastern Africa like Eritrea, and sub-Saharan countries gripped by crippling poverty like Chad and South Sudan — to name but a few routes.

The European Union has been eager to hand over responsibilities for turning back or rescuing migrants to the Libyan authorities, but this has led to avoidable tragedies — not to mention the arbitrary detention and mistreatment of migrants when they arrive in Libya.

“EU member states are abdicating their responsibilities to save lives and deliberately condemning vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea,” said Médecins Sans Frontières’ head of emergencies Karline Kleijer in a recent statement. “They do this fully aware of the extreme violence and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer in Libya.”