The SOS Mediterranee | Credit: Reuters/ A.Parrinello
The SOS Mediterranee | Credit: Reuters/ A.Parrinello

Italy has shut its ports to a migrant rescue boat carrying more than 600 people. Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration.

Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, on Sunday threatened to close the country's ports to a migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean carrying hundreds of migrants unless Malta opened its ports.

European aid group SOS Mediterranee said the ship, the Aquarius, was carrying 629 migrants picked in the Mediterranean on Saturday, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women. Among those on board are 400 migrants rescued by the Italian navy and merchant vessels before being transferred to the Aquarius.

Salvini, who heads the far-right League, issued a joint statement with Italian Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli of the 5-Star Movement, saying Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise international conventions on the protection of human life."

"The Mediterranean is the sea of all the countries that face it, and it (Malta) can't imagine that Italy will continue to face this giant phenomenon (of migration) in solitude," the ministers said.

Malta has refused to take in the Aquarius. In a statement it said the Aquarius took on the migrants in international waters off Libya and rescue operations were coordinated by Italy.

The Maltese Rescue Coordination Center "is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority," the statement said.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said on Facebook that he called his Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, to "explicitly at least take on the human assistance of persons in difficulty aboard the Aquarius." But Muscat refused, Conte said, confirming "the latest unwillingness of Malta and, thus, of Europe, to intervene and take care of the emergency."

Muscat said he told Conte "that Malta is acting in full conformity with its international obligations. As such Malta will not take the said vessel in its ports."
Read more: Italy's rising populism leaves refugee aid workers worried over immigration reform

Migrant 'taxis'

More than 600,000 mostly African migrants have reached Italy by boat from Libya in the past five years. Right-wing politicians have accused charity boats operating off the coast of Libya of operating as "taxis" for migrants.

The migrant influx has led to a populist backlash, with Salvini vowing to prevent Italy from becoming the "refugee camp of Europe."

On Friday, he suggested NATO intervene to protect Italy, saying the country is "under attack from the south."

"From now also Italy begins to say NO to the traffic of human beings, NO to the business of illegal immigration. My goal is to guarantee a peaceful life for these children in Africa and for our children in Italy," Salvini tweeted Sunday using the hashtag "We are shutting the ports."

SOS Mediterranee said late Sunday that it had received instructions from Italian authorities to hold position between Malta and Italy after previously heading north.



"Our only objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the people that we rescued yesterday in difficult conditions," it said, adding that it "took good note" of the Italian interior ministry's statements.


Author: cw/aw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

First published: June 10, 2018

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