CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – After Italy’s new right-wing interior minister closed his nation’s borders to a ship carrying 629 migrants and refugees, the asylum seekers were redirected to a port in Spain on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant and populist party the League, announced that the humanitarian ship Aquarius would not be allowed to dock in Italy.
Until now Italy has been a major point of entry for people seeking work and refuge from war-torn and impoverished nations in Africa and the Middle East.
Salvini’s hard-line approach to migrants and refugees is in keeping with his campaign promises. His party and the left-leaning and populist 5-Star Movement joined forces and formed a new government earlier this month.
Italy’s shift in policy toward asylum seekers is throwing into disarray the politics of Europe and the dynamics of sea rescues. Thousands of people cross the Mediterranean Sea every year. Mostly people make the crossing from Libya and hope to be rescued at sea by humanitarian ships. They are fleeing their homelands for a variety of reasons, among them poverty, war, disease and environmental hardships.
Ruben Neugebauer, a spokesman for Sea-Watch, a German-based rescue group, said Salvini’s decision to stop ships from docking in Italy is causing unnecessary suffering to asylum seekers and jeopardizing rescue operations.
“Obviously, it is endangering the whole mission. If you send boats to Spain it is quite far and takes a long time,” he said in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. “They should be disembarked as quickly as possible.”
On Monday, Salvini, the interior minister, tweeted that he would block Sea-Watch from bringing asylum seekers to Italy.
Neugebauer said a Sea-Watch vessel was off the coast of Libya looking for asylum seekers, but with bad weather and rough seas in the forecast it was not expected to find many people attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, the Italian Coast Guard on Tuesday was transporting about 900 other migrants and refugees aboard one of its vessels, the Diciotti. The Italian news agency ANSA reported that it was headed to the Sicilian port city of Catania. But on Tuesday afternoon a Coast Guard spokeswoman told Courthouse News that she could not confirm where the people aboard the vessel would eventually dock, whether in Italy or elsewhere.
Also on Tuesday, Italian news outlets reported that 53 people from Afghanistan and Pakistan landed on the shores of southern Sicily and were taken into custody.
Italy’s new hard-line stance on asylum seekers has thrust the unfolding crisis in the Mediterranean back into the forefront of European politics.
Southern countries like Italy and Greece have long complained that northern and inland European nations are not doing their part to take in the yearly influx of migrants and refugees.
For the past two years European leaders have been unable to agree on what to do with the waves of people seeking a new life in Europe.
Europe is considering forcing member states to take in more refugees and migrants, but those talks have not led to a new agreement.
In a television interview on Sunday, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, warned that the European Union’s existence was in danger unless it can find a solution to the migration crisis. She has called for European nations to take in more asylum seekers and for setting up a European-wide border patrol.