Aquarius rescue vessel Photo: Archive/EPA/Kai Foersterling
Aquarius rescue vessel Photo: Archive/EPA/Kai Foersterling

A full-scale conflict is underway between ships involved in rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean and the Italian government. After the Aquarius and Lifeline incidents, the aim of clearing the sea of all NGO ships - led by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini - seems closer to being accomplished.

The aim of eliminating NGO ships entirely from the Mediterranean Sea seems closer to being achieved. The goal announced by Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right anti-migrant League party, is shared by the Five Star Movement (M5S), the League's governing coalition partner. 

The fates of the rescue ship Aquarius, which was re-routed to Valencia, and of the German vessel Mission Lifeline, convey a clear message: The waters between Libya and Italy are off-limits for humanitarian rescue ships. 

Malta has also changed its attitude and has prohibited its ports from allowing the SOS Mediterranee to dock, forcing it to head for Marseilles. 

The Open Arms ship is still in Libyan waters. 

Attacks started last year 

Italy's war on NGO migrant rescue ships has been going on for some time. In March, 2017, Catania prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro asked whether ''private organizations'' such as NGOs rescuing migrants at sea were allowed to ''replace political forces and the will of nations.'' Investigations and judge-ordered seizures followed. 

In that period, some 12 humanitarian ships were responsible for 35-40% of the total number of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. Then, interior minister Marco Minniti introduced the "Code of Conduct" for aid organizations. The code included around a dozen rules, such as a requirement that aid boats take migrants to a safe port themselves, rather than transferring people to other boats. This measure greatly reduced the number of humanitarian interventions. 

New government lashes out at NGOs 

Following the formation of the M5S-League government, the situation has become even more difficult for NGOs. After Salvini attacked what he called ''Soros-funded assistant smugglers'' [referring to billionaire philanthropist George Soros], Italian coastguard and navy ships were instructed to withdraw from Libyan waters.

Any ships in distress carrying migrants along the African coast will no longer be dealt with by the Rome marine rescue coordination center. Responsibility for these will instead fall to Libyan, Tunisian or Maltese authorities. According to the Italian policy, humanitarian rescue ships will operate at their own risk, and will no longer be able to dock in Italy with migrants and refugees onboard. 

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