Rome, Aug 8 (IANS/AKI) Amid a rift within Italy’s centre-left government over stringent new rules for charities rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, Transport Minister Graziano Delrio on Tuesday said Italy had a legal obligation to ensure lives are saved at sea.
“It is very straightforward: we are talking about sea rescues, which are governed by international law – not controlling migrant flows,” Delrio told Italian daily La Repubblica.
“These rescues are mandatory, not optional,” said Delrio, who is a doctor by training.
Delrio said did not have “an issue” with Interior Minister Marco Minniti’s controversial new code of conduct for charity rescue vessels in the Mediterranean, which NGOs have said will hamper their life-saving operations in the Mediterranean.
“I don’t have any issues with him (Minniti). We are constantly in contact,” said Delrio.
Minniti has said that the NGOs rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean who have not signed the code of conduct (currently seven out of nine) are excluded from “official” rescue operations and may not bring migrants to Italian ports.
“I am not against Minniti’s code but if lives need saving, then we must use the nearest ship,” said Delrio, whose ministry is in charge of the Italian Coastguard.
Delrio underlined that he had joined the “war” on “odious” migrant traffickers organising the perilous migrant boat crossings to Italy from Africa across the Mediterranean – the world’s deadliest waterway.
“I am working to crack down on the odious illegal migrant trafficking in our war against smugglers.
“But if an NGO vessel is located near people who need rescuing then I cannot exclude it. Even if it has not signed the code of conduct, I have to use it to save human lives.”
Graziano said this had occurred on Saturday when 33 migrants saved by a ship operated medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) were transferred to an Italian coastguard vessel in international waters off the island of Lampedusa because MSF has not signed Italy’s new rules for NGOs.
“The code of conduct states that the Italian coastguard can coordinate the transfer of rescued migrants in specific situations,” Delrio said.
The code bans the transfer of migrants from one vessel to another, requires armed police on board NGO vessels, disallows phonecalls and firing flares, and forbids the ships from sailing into Libyan waters unless lives are at risk.
Delrio’s comments to La Repubblica came the same day that a government crisis over the new rules appeared to loom. Minniti shunned a cabinet meeting while Premier Paolo Gentiloni sought to ease tensions and President Sergio Mattarella stepped in, stressing “the value of the code of conduct for NGOs”.
There are also deep divisions within the government on the ethics of returning migrants to lawless Libya, where they have suffered abuse and violence from people traffickers and a network of thugs who prey on the vulnerable.
On Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro told journalists that sending migrants back to conflict-wracked Libya was “condemning them to hell”.
Italy this month launched a naval mission to Libya which Rome, and the country’s UN-backed national unity government that requested the mission, claim is non-belligerent and aimed at helping Libyan Coastguard stop the human traffickers’ boats before they reach international waters.
Despite a drop in migrant arrivals in Italy in July compared with the previous two years, the overall numbers for the year are almost unchanged from 2016, according to Interior Ministry data.
Some 614,000 migrants have arrived in Italy from North Africa since 2014 and Italy accuses other European Union countries of failing to share the burden of housing, maintaining and employing the migrants.