Italy’s far-right government told aid ships in the Mediterranean Sea not to rescue thousands of refugees in peril on Sunday – despite receiving six separate distress calls from unseaworthy boats.
Officials said the vessels – carrying people from North Africa to Europe – were all in Libyan waters and, therefore, Libyan responsibility.
The Spanish aid group, Proactiva Open Arms, which had ships in the area, said it had been specifically told not to help.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, said in a tweet: "It's right that the Libyan authorities intervene, as they've been doing for days, without having the NGOs interrupt them and disturb them."
The latest revelation follows a fortnight in which Italy has refused permission for aid ships carrying rescued refugees to dock in its ports.
One, the Aquarius with 630 people on board, had to reroute to Spain. Another, Lifeline holding 240 people, remained at sea over the weekend. Mr Salvini has said such refugees would only see his country “on a postcard”.
Italy has said it is seeing a constant stream of people coming illegally from Africa, and has threatened to withhold payments to the EU unless a more even way of dispersing refugees is agreed.
In a blog entitled The Migrant Hypocrisy Sinks Europe, the Five Star Movement party, which is part of the ruling coalition, wrote: “It's time for Europe to find itself again in the principles that everyone preaches, but few sincerely practice."
In a separate development, a summit of 16 European Union nations discussed the perceived refugee crisis in Brussels on Sunday – but failed to come to any agreements.
Following talks Spain's socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez said that while the conversation had been "frank and open… we don't have any concrete consequences or conclusions".
Responding to the news that Italy had ordered rescue ships not to help refugees, Ada Colao, mayor of Barcelona, said her city would take more.
She said: “"Italy wants to leave the migrants in the hands of Libya, where they [face] torture, rape and enslavement."