An Italian tugboat that rescued 66 migrants in Libyan search and rescue waters overnight has been refused entry to an Italian port.
According to multiple media reports on Tuesday, the Italian Interior Ministry is angry with the crew of the Vos Thalassa vessel for picking up the migrants, instead of leaving the rescue to the Libyan coastguard.
“It should have been up to them to pick this load of clandestine migrants,” Interior Ministry undersecretary Stefano Candiani told RAI state radio.
The use of the word ‘clandestine’ suggested an absence of potential refugees among the migrants, but there was no confirmation that this was the case.
RAI and the ANSA news agency, quoting the Interior Ministry, said the stand-off has been resolved with the transfer of the migrants to an Italian coastguard ship.
It was likely, but not yet confirmed, that the Italian coastguard would now disembark the migrants to Italy.
Candiani said nobody’s life would be put in danger.
Italy’s new government, comprising the anti-immigration League party, wants migrants to be intercepted and returned to Libya, rather than being allowed to arrive in Europe.
League leader and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has turned away from Italian ports rescue ships run by charities, and wants to do the same with foreign navy vessels serving in EU naval missions.
Newsmen report that on June 11, Italy’s new populist government, following through on its campaign promise to crack down on immigration, refused to let a rescue boat with more than 600 migrants dock on Sunday and threatened to do the same to other ships.
The action set off a day of diplomatic confrontation with the European Union and its Mediterranean neighbors, until Spain said Monday afternoon that it would break the deadlock and accept the ship, the Aquarius, which had been at sea under a sweltering sun since Saturday.
Italy wanted Malta, which was only 27 nautical miles away, to take the migrants.
But since 2013, Italy has officially coordinated rescue missions in the central Mediterranean, after a shipwreck left more than 350 migrants dead near the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
Since then, European countries have joined forces in a military operation led by Italy to prevent similar tragedies while patrolling in search of human traffickers. Over recent years, the mission has shrunk, but rescued migrants were usually brought to Italy.
The consensus in the international community is that Malta, whose population is less than 1 percent of Italy’s, could not absorb the migrants as easily as Italy could.