German rescue ship arrives in Italian waters against orders

The captain says her migrant passengers deserve safety. Italy’s interior minister has threatened arrest. He argues Italy, a prominent entry point into Europe for asylum seekers, has the right to defend its borders.

Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters
Sea-Watch 3, a German rescue ship carrying migrants from Libya, sails near the island of Lampedusa, Italy, June 26, 2019. The ship's captain has entered Italian waters despite a warning from Italy's interior minister.

A private sea rescue ship carrying 42 migrants it took aboard off the Libyan coastline two weeks ago entered Italian waters Wednesday despite an explicit ban from Italy's interior minister, who has threatened to seize the ship operated by a German aid organization and to arrest its captain.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the captain of the Sea-Watch 3 broke the law both by disobeying direct orders not to cross into Italy's territorial waters and by flouting measures that bar the migrant rescue ships of nonprofit groups from entering Italian jurisdiction.

"The right to defend our borders is sacred," Mr. Salvini said.

Italian media played a recording of the ship's captain, Carola Rackete, informing port authorities Wednesday she was heading to Italy "because I cannot guarantee the safety of the people on board anymore." The response from the port was "You are not authorized to enter Italian waters."

Mr. Salvini has insisted the ship belonging to German group Sea-Watch and sailing under a Dutch flag should have continued on to Malta, Tunisia, or northern European ports instead of remaining near Italy. The crew insisted that Italy's Lampedusa island had the safe port nearest to migrants' point of rescue north of Libyan waters.

Hours after Sea-Watch 3 arrived off the coast of Lampedusa on Wednesday, there was no sign the migrants would be allowed to get off the ship in Italy or any other move to end the standoff.

Given the boat's Dutch flag, Italy requested "formal steps" from the Netherlands through its embassy in The Hague, the Italian Foreign Ministry said. Meanwhile, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte met with Mr. Salvini and Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi in Rome to discuss the situation.

Ms. Rackete said in a video posted on Twitter that Italian authorities had boarded the ship to check documentation and the crew's passports.

The authorities "are waiting for further instructions from their superiors," she said. "I really hope they will take the rescues off the ship soon."

In a separate post, she said she knew she risked arrest "but the 42 rescued are exhausted. I need to bring them to safety."

Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebereger said the crew had previously requested permission to port in Malta and was turned down. Sea-Watch also asked the European Union's executive commission to intervene and help find a port that will allow the ship, Mr. Neugebauer said.

The European Commission had been in touch with "several member states" by midday to identify a port where the migrants could disembark and countries willing to take the passengers in after that, spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said. She said no decisions were made.

Sea-Watch said that the migrants had become desperate after the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday rejected their appeal to be allowed to disembark in Italy.

Those on board are among 53 that the group said it rescued June 12 from a rubber boat off Libya in international waters. In the meantime, 11 have been evacuated to Italy for medical reasons. The remaining 42 include a 12-year-old and two other children traveling alone.

The group's cultural mediator, Haidi Sadik, said many on board have been tortured in Libya. "But even if this was not the case, any person rescued at sea, by law has to be brought to a place of safety. These are people with basic needs and basic rights. A rescue operation is not finished until every single person rescued has both feet on the ground," Mr. Sadik said.

It is the latest standoff since Italy's populist government began refusing port last year to humanitarian rescue ships. Mr. Salvini claims the boats aid migrant traffickers by waiting off the Libyan coast to pick up migrants from unseaworthy vessels that couldn't make it all the way to Europe.

He also is trying to push the European Union to find a way to take the pressure of dealing with migrants off Italy, a main entry point due to its southern Mediterranean location. EU rules require the country asylum-seekers reach first to consider applications for protection, a process that has kept new arrivals in Italy for extended periods.

But at the same time, the mayor of Lampedusa told broadcaster Sky TG24 that migrants continue to arrive on other boats, often from Tunisia, that aren't operated by private groups. He said eight migrants arrived Tuesday evening on a boat that a police vessel towed to port.

In Turkey, where an EU agreement with the government has stemmed the number of Europe-bound migrants, officials said Wednesday that a van carrying dozens of migrants ignored orders to stop and sped past a police checkpoint before crashing into a wall.

Ten migrants were killed and about 30 others were injured in the crash. Many migrants try to enter European Union member Greece from Turkey by sea, making a relatively short crossing to nearby Greek islands. Others take a northern land route.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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