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Italian minister declares victory as Spain accepts migrants

Matteo Salvini, who refused to let ship carrying 629 refugees and migrants to dock, says: ‘We have opened a front in Brussels’ Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, has declared victory after a standoff over the

Matteo Salvini, who refused to let ship carrying 629 refugees and migrants to dock, says: ‘We have opened a front in Brussels’

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, has declared victory after a standoff over the fate of 629 people on a humanitarian rescue boat prompted Spain to agree to accept them.

The impasse, after the populist and far-right government in Italy refused to allow the MS Aquarius to dock over the weekend, suggested that Europecould face a humanitarian crisis this summer as it comes to grips with the new Italian government’s hardline approach to refugees and migrants.

Salvini blocked the ship from Italian ports and said it should go to Malta instead. Malta refused, saying it had nothing to do with a rescue mission overseen by the Italian coastguard in waters off Libya.

“We have opened a front in Brussels,” said Salvini, who became interior minister last week. “We are contacting the European commission so that it can fulfil its duties towards Italy that have never been respected.”

With the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, urging the urgent disembarkation of all 629 people on board, including 100 children, as provisions ran out, Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s new prime minister, gave permission for the MS Aquarius to dock in Valencia. He said his country would welcome those on board.

Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, thanked Spain for its “gesture of solidarity”.

Rome’s new position did not mean every ship would be denied entry. The Italian coastguard vessel the Ubaldo Diciotti, with 937 migrants on board – and two of whom have died, was heading to the port of Catania on Monday evening, signalling that ports are still open to Italy’s own rescue boats. They are expected to be closed to all NGOs, however.

While it appeared on Monday that an immediate crisis had been averted by Spain, Salvini’s response, and a statement indicating he would block more ships carrying refugees and migrants, promised that there would be more of such confrontations in the future.

The new Italian approach by the ruling coalition of Salvini’s far-right League and the populist Five Star Movement followed an election campaign this year in which Salvini vowed to adopt tough polices on migrants.

The standoff over the Aquarius marks the first time thathis rhetoric has translated into action as interior minister, a role in which he will have oversight of migration and domestic security.

It has also left the NGOs on the frontlines of rescuing migrants at sea – and who sometimes have faced direct confrontations with Libyan coastguard officials seeking to take the migrants back to Libya – in uncertain territory about what comes next.

“’We don’t know if Italy will continue blocking us, we don’t know if they will close again the seaports. What we know is that we will continue coordinating the rescue operation with [rescue officials],” said Mathilde Auvillain of SOS Méditerranée, which operates the Aquarius.”

She added: “We’ll wait for the instructions as we always did. If it is not Italy it will be another country. As I said, our rescue operation will continue, regardless.”

There were also questions about how long it would take the Aquarius to make it to Valencia, and whether the political and diplomatic fracas had put some of tose on board in harm’s way.

“People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly. Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between states should be looked at later,” said Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean, before Spain made its offer.

Auvillain said the voyage to Spain would take almost two more days at sea.

More than 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years, and it is estimated as many as 500,000 are still in the country. Salvini’s League, formerly the Northern League, campaigned in the last election on an anti-immigration platform, even though the previous government had overseen a big drop in the numbers coming from Libya over the past 12 months.

The European commission, anxious to avoid feeding the new Italian government’s anti-EU narrative, had earlier called on Italy and Malta to consider the humanitarian needs of those on board.

“France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” said Salvini said on Sunday, adding that Malta “takes in nobody”.

The Maltese government rejected a request to take in the boat, saying international law required that the refugees and migrants be taken to Italian ports.

Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, thanked Spain on Twitter for taking in the Aquarius “after Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff”. He said his country would be “sending fresh supplies to the vessel. We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue.”

Fulvio Vassallo, an expert on asylum and international law from the University of Palermo, said the episode “could be the end of humanitarian rescue operations at sea. Salvini won and his victory will have a serious impact in the migrant crisis,.”

Italy’s new approach was met with resistance by the Vatican and mayors across the south of Italy, including by Palermo’s Leoluca Orlando, who had said he was ready to open the city’s seaport to the ship.

“Palermo in ancient Greek meant ‘complete port’. We have always welcomed rescue boats and vessels who saved lives at sea. We will not stop now,” he said. “Salvini is violating international law. He has once again shown that we are under an extreme far-right government.’’

Other mayors in southern Italy, including those in Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria, also said they were ready to disobey Salvini’s order and allow the Aquarius to dock in their seaports.

SOS Méditerranée said the people on board, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, were picked up in six different rescue operations off the coast of Libya and included hundreds plucked from the sea by Italian naval units.

Although Sánchez’s offer was swiftly praised at home and abroad, the UNHCR has warned that Spain lacks the resources and infrastructure to cope with the migration crisis.

Additional reporting by Daniel Boffey and Patrick Wintour


Review overview
  • Tesfai June 12, 2018

    Thank you Spain. Do you know that most of these refugees are Eritreans too?

  • Fiyori-Dallas June 12, 2018

    EMDJ, Assenna and many other opposition Mahbers encouraged and promoted Eritrean youth to abandon the Eritrean government and society by emigrating and seeking asylum for over a decade. That was a mistaken view. Now nobody wants refugees, even the long long time residents and citizens are at risk and suspects now; even United Kingdom broke from EropeN Union over Eritrean, polish and Other migrants. Here in the United States President Donald Trump came to power very mad over white and African Americans fear of migrants that included Eritrean migrants and Latinos and Mexico migrants. This poor men and women refugees should stay put in their countries and fight to creat freedom and jobs and desirable living conditions and a future for their children. Please stop 🛑 encouraging the youth to emigrate and seek asylum. Instead you should incite the youth to arrest and put in jail their older generation who have messed up their lives and future.

  • k.tewolde June 12, 2018

    I see us,I see the sons and daughters of slaves,the way we were many moons ago waiting in dungeons along the banks of the sea waiting to be shipped to unknown destinations to be sold and traded like a cheap commodity.Nothing has changed except the way we perceive who we are and identify ourselves…..refugees,asylum seekers is deeply rooted issue,it is self loathing,it is something that was passed on to us like essential hypertension from our forefathers,it is in our DNA,we are always looking at something that is not ours and identify with something that doesn’t look like us,we are self destructive race who deny our relationship to those who perished and are perishing running away from their roots.No wonder they called it the DARK CONTINENT,because the people are still groping in the dark,the only ones who can see clearly are the strangers who come from a foreign land.May be someday things will be better………when I am long gone.

  • rezen June 12, 2018

    Subject: “Italian minister declares victory as Spain accepts migrants”, June 11, 2018
    Quote” “Do you know that most of these refugees are Eritreans…” Unquote by Tesfai, June 12, 2018

    Commentary, 12 June 2018 Yes, Eritrean Refugees are on second or third place in the world. If, however, one takes it against the population ratio, then it is possible that ERITREA may take the number one place on the scale of destitution. And for that ‘distinction’, Eritrea lost its young population in a “liberation” war of thirty (30) years, which turned out to be a ‘struggle’ to get to the bottom strata of Life — designed and executed perfectly by indigenous few charlatan Eritreans!!!

    What is the sociological nomenclature for such a monumental crime? Will Eritrea recover from such psychological and physiological cruel phenomenon? Will Eritreans abroad, of any strata, have the ‘stomach’ to return back to their birthplace against such horror of experience? Will Eritreans, of all strata, ever forgive themselves for leading the way, with open heart, to earthly Hell? It is easy to blame the few ‘smart-devils’ who led Eritrea to darkness, as if we – the commoners, the custodian of Eritrea — didn’t have the natural eyesight to see where we were heading and the mentality that would have enabled us to THINK. What made us collective zombies? There is something inherently wrong in Eritrea!

    One hundred and thirty years of time has elapsed and Eritreans had NEVER known the meaning of “independence, freedom and liberty”. No wonder, a Taxi Driver in Asmara poured his heart out with nostalgia (in his secured taxi) to the famous writer Michela Wrong (1) that the “old time was good”. It means, the old colonial masters were better than indigenous government; and the horrendous sacrifice made during thirty-year war came to be a meaningless end. It is sad.

    Eritreans, with their good hearts and with their well known valour, proven by any standard — in a thirty-year liberation struggle — do not deserve the dictatorial treatment by their own brethren. In the absence of any meaningful rationale to this strange ‘behaviour’ I give in to the wisdom of our insightful commentator k.tewolde: who ended his narration in one of his commentaries with these memorable words from his heart: Quote : “Something is fundamentally wrong with us” Unquote (2)
    (1) “I Didn’t Do It For You” (2005). By the way, the title of the book was taken from an angry British Officer to an innocent ululating Eritrean woman WELCOMING the British soldiers. Michela Wrong, in her affection for the Eritrean people, deleted one derogatory word of the Captain at the end of the above Title.
    (2) Commentary: “Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s Zinger and Witticism: Ethiopia’s Acceptance of the Border Ruling”, by Tesfamichael Kidane, June 8, 2018 []
    I wrote my commentary before I saw k.tewolde’s extraordinary soul searching commentary – but I did not change a single word in my contribution.

    Addendum: I wrote the above commentary, in its totality, without being aware of k.tewolde’s extraordinary soul searching commentary. Will Eritreans ever be FREE from degenerative parochial obsession? It is NOT likely. Time has proved it. Hence, Eritrea is heading to its fragmentation — as it is too important entity for international political interests. It CANNOT be left alone!!!

  • Simon G. June 13, 2018