World News

Italy and Malta Block Another Rescue Ship Carrying Migrants

Posted June 24, 2018 7:22 p.m. EDT

For the second time this month, authorities in Italy and Malta are refusing to allow a rescue ship with hundreds of migrants aboard to dock in their ports.

The rescue vessel, the MV Lifeline, run by German charity Mission Lifeline, has been unable to offload 234 people sheltering onboard since they were rescued from two rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean on Thursday.

A cargo vessel, the Alexander Maersk, was also waiting Sunday for clearance to dock in an Italian port with 110 rescued migrants onboard. While on a merchant mission Thursday, the ship came to the assistance of a boat in distress 5 miles off the coast of Pozzallo, Italy.

“They have the right to live,” Axel Steier, a Mission Lifeline founder, said of the migrants. “And they have a right to seek asylum, and that isn’t being guaranteed at the moment. It’s kind of like you are jailed on the ocean.”

The episode is the latest to highlight divisions in the Europe Union that have left the bloc without a comprehensive migration policy as countries on the front line of the Mediterranean route bicker over who should be responsible for migrants.

Steier, who said the MV Lifeline was waiting off the western coast of Malta, described the rescue vessel as a “ball in a political game.” The migrants onboard, all of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, had set off from Libya on two dinghies.

The group is mostly made up of men, with 14 women and at least four children among them, Steier said. He called the idea of transporting migrants back to Libya inhumane and contrary to international human rights norms.

Describing migrants’ accounts relayed to worked on the ship, he said, “We have women who have been raped, and also people who have been tortured.”

Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, an outspoken opponent of immigration, has vowed that the ship would not be allowed to come to Italy. He also posted a video on his Facebook page Thursday in which he called those onboard the MV Lifeline “human meat.”

He said the migrants had been rescued in Libyan waters and therefore should be returned to Libya, an assertion the staff of the MV Lifeline denies.

Mission Lifeline responded with its own Facebook post Sunday. “Dear Matteo Salvini, we have no meat on board, but humans,” it read. “We cordially invite you to convince yourself that it is people we have saved from drowning.”

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center — which coordinates sea rescues and provides location details of distressed boats in Italian waters to charities and merchant vessels in the Mediterranean — was involved in coordinating both of the rescues. But the Italian authorities would not let the ships dock, Steier said.

The Maltese authorities brought humanitarian supplies to the MV Lifeline on Saturday, but Malta also refused entry, saying it could not take responsibility for the ship.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta wrote on Twitter that the ship should move toward its original destination to “prevent escalation” and that Malta had “no responsibility for it.”

Another migrant rescue ship, the Aquarius, found itself in a similar situation this month. It spent a week at sea after being refused entry to Italy and Malta with hundreds of people aboard. Spain later accepted the ship, and the migrants disembarked in Valencia.

Even as MV Lifeline and Maersk Alexander waited to see where they could dock, other rescues continued in the Mediterranean.

The charity Doctors Without Borders, which takes part in rescue efforts there, said the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center had alerted the group to seven boats at risk Sunday with around 1,000 people onboard.

European leaders met in Brussels on Sunday for an informal talk on migration and asylum before a broader summit meeting this week.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, speaking before the meeting, said changes needed to be made to European policies requiring that refugees claim asylum in the first country they arrive in.

Because of Italy’s location in the Mediterranean, it is responsible for the majority of new arrivals hoping to reach Europe from Libya and claim asylum.