Malta can’t ‘look the other way’ on migrants: Italy’s Salvini

Matteo Salvini has threatened to close access to Italian ports for migrant rescue ships if Malta fails to act

Rome (AFP) – Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini on Sunday said Malta cannot continue “to look the other way” and urged it to open its ports to an NGO migrant rescue ship which is in the Mediterranean with hundreds of people on board.

Malta has so far refused to take in the 629 migrants saved by SOS Mediterranee and currently stuck aboard the French NGO’s ship Aquarius.

Media reports earlier said Salvini has threatened to close access to Italian ports for migrant rescue ships if Malta fails to act.

A spokesman for the Maltese government told AFP they “have not received communication from Salvini so far”, but that “Malta was neither the coordinating nor the competent authority” in the rescue operation.

Salvini, in a joint statement with Danilo Toninelli, minister in charge of the Italian coastguard, insisted that Malta “cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise international conventions on the protection of human life.”

It is “unthinkable”, the statement added, “that Italy continues to face this enormous phenomenon (of immigration) alone. That’s why we ask the government in La Valletta to take in the Aquarius in order to offer first aid to the migrants on board.”

According to the daily Italian Corriere Della Sera, Rome believes Valletta as the “most secure port” and the boat should thus dock there.

The Maltese government spokesman insisted that the rescue of the migrants took place in the Libyan search and rescue area and was headed up by the rescue coordination centre in Rome, meaning Malta has no legal obligation to take in the migrants.

– Anti-migrant rhetoric –

SOS Mediterranee said the crew of the Aquarius were still at sea and awaiting instructions. 

“Our sole objective is to bring the people we’ve rescued, in difficult conditions yesterday, to a port of safety,” the group said in a statement.

The migrants were rescued by Aquarius in six separate night-time operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday. 

The French organisation said that among those saved and brought on board are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11  small children and seven pregnant women. 

Salvini, also deputy prime minister, has continued with his anti-migrant rhetoric since taking charge of the interior ministry, asking on Friday for NATO to defend Italy, which he says is “under attack from the south”.

Salvini’s comments came after another spat with Malta following its reported refusal to come to the aid of another rescue ship Seefuchs, which was stranded with 126 migrants on board due to violent seas  until it was allowed to dock in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on Saturday.

“If anyone thinks I won’t move a muscle while we have another summer of landings, landings and more landings, well that’s not what I’m going to do,” Salvini told reporters.

– Two-year deadlock –

The same day Italian authorities held the migrant rescue boat Sea-Watch 3 for 12 hours after it brought 232 people to Reggio Calabria, on the south-western tip of the mainland.

Italian police questioned the boat’s captain for more than four hours, according to the NGO, and journalists aboard were asked to hand over video footage of the rescue operation, which took place on June 5.

Sea-Watch said police also questioned some of the rescued migrants who, after being processed by the authorities,  are likely to end up in reception centres.

Sea-Watch said it requested help from the coastguard in Malta to send boats to aid the rescue mission but Malta refused.

On Tuesday EU countries conceded that they are a long way from breaking a two-year deadlock over reforming the bloc’s asylum rules by this month’s deadline given a “harder political climate” following right-wing election gains in Italy and elsewhere.

EU leaders in December had set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul of the so-called Dublin rules to create a permanent mechanism to deal with migrants in the event of a new emergency.

Under those rules, the countries where migrants first arrive are required to process their asylum requests. Italy, Greece and Spain are the main entry points to Europe. 

The summer of that year saw a surge in mass drownings in the Mediterranean as Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II peaked with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.