ROME (AP) — Italy stepped up pressure Wednesday on fellow EU nations to open their ports to migrants rescued by humanitarian ships as political tension simmers in the Italian government’s coalition over a sharply rising number of arrivals this summer on the country’s southern shores.
The office of Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said she had a long telephone conversation with the European Union’s internal affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson.
Political and economic crises in Tunisia are feeding steadily increasing streams of migrants determined to reach Europe, many of whom set out in smugglers’ boats from Libyan shores. The Italian interior ministry’s statement said those factors figured in Lamorgese’s request for “an urgent change of direction in the interventions of the Union’s migratory policy.”
In May and June, the number of migrants who reached Italian shores more than tripled compared to the previous year’s figure, according to the ministry’s count. In July, the year-to-year difference was less marked — 8,600 in 2021 compared to 7,000 in 2020. But so far August has seen charity boats carrying the flags of France and Germany rescue hundreds of migrants from unseaworthy boats launched by human traffickers.
Currently some 800 rescued passengers are aboard charity vessels waiting permission from Italy or Malta to enter a safe port.. Hundreds more in recent days, including from Tunisia, have reached Sardinia or the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa unaided. The island’s residence for newly arrived migrants seeking asylum hold some 250 people, but repeatedly, the number of occupants has swelled beyond 1,000.
Italy on Wednesday requested “immediate, even temporary, activation of a mechanism that involves the member states to allow for docking that is safe and compatible with anti-COVID-19 measures, to NGO ships flying European banners” and which are carrying out search-and-rescue operations in international waters, the ministry said.
Right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, whose anti-migrant League party, is a prominent partner in Premier Mario Draghi’s coalition, has been increasingly forceful in his criticism of Italy’s management of migration.
“I am convinced that Draghi will wake up Lamorgese,” Salvini said earlier this week after talks with the premier. Lamorgese is a career interior ministry official who was tapped by the premier for the post when he formed his pandemic-unity government in February.
Salvini noted that in the first seven months of 2021, nearly 30,000 migrants have stepped ashore in Italy, roughly double the number in the previous year’s same period. “What are we waiting for, that they become 100,000?” Salvini told reporters.
Among the charity ships currently plying the central Mediterranean is Ocean Viking, operated by the French-based humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee. The NGO tweeted that a pregnant woman and her companion were evacuated from the vessel on Tuesday by the Italian coast guard, but more than 550 rescued migrants were still aboard.
Earlier in the week, SOS Mediterranee said many of the migrants were suffering from sea-sickness while several others fainted in the heat on a crowded deck.
Aboard a German-flagged vessel operated by the Sea-Watch humanitarian group were more than 250 migrants, rescued in five separate operations in the last days. “Many are dehydrated & seasick, some received infusions after collapsing,” Sea-Watch tweeted on Wednesday. ”Our medics are doing what they can, but the people need adequate treatment on land.”
During the pandemic, Italy has been transferring many of the rescued migrants to unoccupied passenger ferries so the migrants can do a precautionary quarantine against COVID-19 before eventually transferring them to residential facilities on land.
Past years have seen Italy’s pleas for fellow EU nations to take in some of the migrants, many of whom want to reach families in northern Europe, go unheeded as part of a voluntary solidarity arrangement in the 27-member bloc.
In her appeal to Johansson, the Italian minister pitched for negotiations for a new immigration and asylum pact to call for “obligatory redistribution of the migrants saved at sea.”
Many of those brought to Italy’s shores are fleeing poverty, not conflict or persecution, and are eventually found to be ineligible for asylum. But only a few countries, notably Tunisia, have repatriation agreements with Italy, and tens of thousands of migrants wind up staying illegally for years.
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