CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – A German humanitarian group is provoking another standoff with Italy after one of its ships carrying 42 immigrants and refugees rescued from the Mediterranean Sea entered Italian waters without authorization.
On Thursday, the Sea-Watch 3 ship was blocked by Italian authorities from reaching Lampedusa, a Sicilian island off the coast of North Africa. The ship was about 1 mile from the port when it was ordered to turn off its engines.
This is not the first time Sea-Watch has clashed with Italy over the question of whether it can disembark people picked up from the Mediterranean in Italian ports. The ship and its crew face arrest and authorities may seek to seize the ship.
The standoff comes only two days after the European Court of Human Rights declined a request from the Sea-Watch 3’s captain to allow the refugees from Africa to disembark in Lampedusa and therefore also come under the protection of the European Union’s laws.
Following the ruling, and citing desperate conditions aboard the ship, Captain Carola Rackete ordered the ship to proceed regardless toward Lampedusa.
“This is not a provocation, but a case of necessity,” a Sea-Watch spokeswoman, Giorgia Linardi, said on Twitter. “We’ve been in an emergency for two weeks.”
Sea-Watch said it defied Italian authorities because it preferred running the risk of seeing its ship seized by authorities than that of a refugee committing suicide.
“The desperation of people is not something you can play with,” the group said.
Under Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy has taken an extremely hard line against refugees and immigrants. Last summer, Salvini closed Italy’s ports to humanitarian ships and reluctantly allowed refugees picked up by the country’s navy to land in Italy. He also has forced other European nations to take in most of the people rescued at sea who wind up in Italy.
On Twitter and in interviews, the interior minister shot back at Sea-Watch, calling the decision to enter Italian waters “a political battle.”
“I won’t allow foreign NGOs to dictate the law on national borders for a country like Italy,” Salvini said, referring to non-governmental organizations. He blasted the Sea-Watch 3 captain as an “outlaw” who “feels guilty because she was born ‘white, rich and German.’”
He added that he would like to see the ship taken under custody and the crew arrested. Italy also filed a diplomatic complaint with the Netherlands, where the ship is registered.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it was preparing a response through diplomatic channels, the Associated Press reported. But it said that while “the Netherlands takes its responsibility as a flag state, it does not mean that it will also take over migrants.’’
Salvini charges that the humanitarian operations work in cahoots with human traffickers and encourage people fleeing war and poverty to attempt crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching the EU and finding a better life.
The EU’s executive Commission indicated that member countries had stepped up to accept the migrants but it added that a solution could only be worked out once the immigrants and refugees were on land, according to the AP.
In Brussels, the EU’s top migration official urged Italy to allow the immigrants and refugees to land in Lampedusa as soon as possible.
“I hope that Italy, in this particular incident, will contribute to a swift resolution for the persons onboard,” Migration Commissioner Dmitris Avramopoulos said in a statement.
The Sea-Watch 3 picked up 53 people it rescued on June 12 from a rubber boat off Libya in international waters. In the meantime, 11 were evacuated to Italy for medical reasons. The remaining 42 include a 12-year-old and two other children traveling alone. The ship has been meandering at sea since the rescue, waiting for the European Court of Human Rights to issue its ruling.
Sea-Watch has blasted the EU for its inaction while praising the more than 60 cities and municipalities across Europe that have declared themselves safe havens for refugees.
In Palermo, the capital of Sicily, people gathered at a rally to show their support for Sea-Watch. Palermo’s liberal mayor, Leoluca Orlando, called on the government to stop blocking ships and said its actions were inhumane.
“The right to life and survival is an inalienable human right,” the mayor said. He also said he wanted to grant honorary citizenship in Palermo to the Sea-Watch crew for their work of saving lives.
Other demonstrations in support of Sea-Watch were held in Rome and Milan.
Sea-Watch said it was gearing up for a legal fight over this newest clash.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)