Charity group challenges Italy over migrant stand-off

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) -A German charity operating a migrant rescue ship said on Monday it would go to court to try to overturn efforts by Italy's new right-wing government to prevent some of the people it had saved from the sea coming to land.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's two-week-old administration has moved swiftly to impose a crackdown on immigration, refusing to let four charity boats bring ashore migrants, only allowing those it says are vulnerable to disembark.

Two boats, the German-flagged Humanity 1 and the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents, were given permission to dock in Catania, Sicily, at the weekend and allowed to let off some 500 migrants, mainly women and children, leaving around 250 still onboard.

The government has ordered the ships to return to sea, but their captains have so far refused. Two other non-governmental boats, the Ocean Viking and the Rise Above, were still at sea off Sicily carrying around 300 migrants.

Later on Monday Mission Lifeline, the group running the Rise Above with 89 migrants aboard, said in a statement Italian authorities had assigned them the southern port of Reggio Calabria where they expect to arrive at 3:00 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Tuesday.

Contacted by Reuters, a representative for Mission Lifeline said they had not yet received any indications from Italy that they should disembark only the vulnerable.

German charity SOS Humanity has said it will shortly present a suit to a Rome court appealing a government decree that refused to a designate a safe port to the rescue boats. It is also appealing in a Sicilian court so that those migrants left aboard should be allowed to enter Italy and seek asylum.

Meloni's government has accused the charity ships of acting as a de-facto taxi service for migrants seeking a better life in Europe. It is threatening 50,000 euro ($50,000) fines if the boats refuse to leave port.


The charities, including France's Doctors without Borders (MSF), which operates the Geo Barents, say they play a vital role saving lives in one of the world's most deadly migration routes and accuse Italy of breaking international law.

"The partial and selective disembarkation, such as suggested in the Italian government's decree, is heinous and can't be considered lawful according to maritime conventions," MSF said on Monday.

The United Nations agencies for migration and refugees, respectively the IOM and the UNHCR, said the stranded migrants "need to be disembarked swiftly without any further delay."

This should be followed by "meaningful responsibility-sharing between all concerned states," the agencies said in a joint statement.

France, Germany and Norway have all called on Italy to take in the migrants, however Hungary's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has praised Rome's hardline approach.

"Finally! We owe a big thank you to Giorgia Meloni and the new Italian government for protecting the borders of Europe," Orban wrote on Twitter at the weekend.

Pope Francis also entered the debate on Sunday, saying European Union member states should share responsibility for taking in migrants and not leave frontier countries like Italy to face the problem alone.

On Monday, European Commission spokesperson Anita Hipper said member states had a "legal and moral duty" to save lives of people, regardless of the circumstances that led them to sea.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in migrant arrivals this year, with around 88,000 people landing so far in 2022 against 55,000 in the same period last year, official data showed. Most of them were from Egypt and Tunisia.

NGO rescues account for around 15% of migrants who disembarked in Italy this year, the U.N. said.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante and Marco Carta; Additional reporting by Alvise Armellini in Rome and Bart H Meijer in Amsterdam; Writing by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer, Alison Williams and Gavin Jones and Keith Weir)