By Alvise Armellini and Federico Maccioni
ROME (Reuters) - Right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is forcing migrant rescue ships to dock further and further north along Italy's coastline, meaning long journeys that raise their operating costs and strain their ability to continue saving lives.
On Tuesday, the Geo Barents, a vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), was told to go to the northern port of La Spezia after picking up 69 migrants south of Malta.
"It is 100 hours of navigation from where we are at the moment," said the non-governmental organisation, which later carried out two more rescues, bringing to 237 the number of migrants aboard.
Like the majority of those saved in the central Mediterranean, they had sailed from Libya.
La Spezia is the furthest and northernmost destination that Italy has assigned to an NGO ship. This month, it told other vessels to reach Livorno in Tuscany, and the eastern Adriatic ports of Ancona and Ravenna.
Until recently, these ships would usually have been made to dock on Lampedusa island or other Sicilian locations.
"Compared to disembarking in Sicily, going all the way to La Spezia costs us 70,000 euros ($76,240) in fuel alone," Juan Matias Gil, head of mission for the Geo Barents vessel, told Reuters by telephone.
The government's idea is that Sicily and other southern regions should not face alone the burden of hosting migrant landings.
The Geo Barents was ordered to La Spezia "only for a question of rotation between ports," Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.
Forcing NGO ships to reach ever-more distant ports increases costs at a time when budgets are stretched by inflation and higher fuel costs following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Last month, the SOS Mediterranee NGO appealed for donations, saying fuel charges for its Ocean Viking rescue ship had increased by over 1 million euros during 2022.
The new docking destinations policy adds to a December decree which forces NGO ships to request and head to a port "without delay" after each rescue, rather than continue looking for boats in distress.
Captains breaching these rules risk fines of up to 50,000 euros and a two-month impounding of their vessel. In cases of repeated violations, they risk permanent confiscation.
MSF and 16 other charities have condemned these rules, saying they will result in more people drowning at sea. The Italian Catholic Church has called for the decree to be scrapped.
Meloni has stood by the decision. She said in December she wanted to put a brake on NGOs' ships acting as "ferry boats" for migrants, going "back and forth with human traffickers to shuttle people from one country to the other".
($1 = 0.9181 euros)
(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, editing by Timothy Heritage)