CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — A humanitarian rescue group that has been in a public fight with Italy’s new anti-immigrant government over its work rescuing asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean says the Italian government has pressured Panama to cancel its ship’s registration.
It’s the latest fight between humanitarian groups working in the Mediterranean and Italy, a nation that has become increasingly aggressive in stopping asylum-seekers from reaching its shores.
Italy’s anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accuses the rescue crews of encouraging asylum-seekers to cross the Mediterranean by giving people hope they will be rescued and taken to Europe. He also repeatedly alleges the nongovernmental groups are helping human smugglers.
SOS Mediterranée, a Paris-based organization that operates the Aquarius search and rescue ship, said it was told by Panamanian officials on Saturday that it would no longer be able to fly the Panamanian flag. A ship cannot legally sail without registration somewhere. The Aquarius had recently lost its registration in Gibraltar.
The Aquarius is the only nongovernmental rescue ship left in the Mediterranean.
SOS Mediterranée said the loss of its Panamanian registration was because of “blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian government.”
The Italian interior ministry and foreign ministry did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment Monday.
On Twitter, Salvini denied he had exerted any pressure on Panama and added: “I don’t even know what the country code for Panama is.”
Udo Bullmann, the head of the Socialists & Democrats group of the European Parliament, lambasted the Italian government.
“This is an inhumane, irresponsible and shameful act,” Bullmann said in a statement.
On Monday, the Aquarius was carrying 58 asylum-seekers it had picked up from two vessels off the coast of Libya.
It refused to hand over the people it had picked up to the Libyan coast guard before it was denied entry to Italian and Maltese harbors.
On Monday, French media reported that the vessel was headed to the French port of Marseille. This decision opens up new legal and political uncertainties because France too has been unwilling to take in asylum-seekers picked up in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, a German search and rescue group, Sea-Watch, is fighting to get three of its Dutch-flagged ships released in Malta, where they have been detained for nearly three months. The Maltese government accuses the ships of operating without proper registration, but Sea-Watch says the detentions are illegal.
Ruben Neugebauer, a Sea-Watch spokesman, charged that Malta grounded the ships under pressure from Salvini.
“They would rather watch people drown than let them reach their shores,” Neugebauer said of Italy and Malta in a telephone interview with Courthouse News on Monday.
Neugebauer said other rescue vessels have been forced out of the Mediterranean.
“All the NGOs are blocked at this point,” he said. “All of Europe is giving in to Italian bullying.”
In a statement on Sunday, SOS Mediterranée accused the Italian government of forcing the Panama Maritime Authority to revoke the registration of the Aquarius.
The group said Panamanian officials told SOS Mediterranée that canceling the Aquarius’ registration was necessary to avoid “a political problem against the Panamanian government and the Panamanian fleet.”
SOS Mediterranée said the Aquarius meets Panama’s maritime standards and requirements. The Panamanian embassy in Rome did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment Monday.
Italy says the Libyan coast guard should be in charge of rescues off its North African coast. But critics say this is the opposite of what people fleeing harsh conditions in Libya want. They also say the Libyan coast guard is ill-equipped to monitor for vessels in distress and save lives.
Besides the Libyan coast guard, there are European coast guard and navy vessels that conduct rescues. But still, the nongovernmental groups specifically search for asylum-seekers and have picked up a large portion of them.
Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from war-torn and impoverished African and Asian nations are trying to reach Europe, often by making a voyage across the Mediterranean in overcrowded flimsy vessels that leave Libya.
About 1,260 people have died this year trying to cross the central Mediterranean. This is far fewer than in previous years, but far fewer people this year have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Last year about 3,139 people were killed in the crossing, according to data from the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.
About 78,300 people have crossed the sea this year compared to about 167,000 last year, IOM data shows.