Italy in new migrant boat standoff with Malta

FILE PHOTO: Italian President Sergio Mattarella speaks during the news conference in Riga, Latvia July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

July 13, 2018

By Steve Scherer and Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) – Italy on Friday urged Malta to go to the aid of an overcrowded boat carrying hundreds of migrants, only hours after the Italian president intervened to end a dispute within the ruling coalition over rescued immigrants.

There have been two similar stand-offs with Malta since Italy’s new populist government, which pairs the far-right League party with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, took power on June 1.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also leader of the League, said Italy would not take in the migrants because they were Malta’s responsibility. Malta, a small island nation, has generally refused to take in large numbers of boat migrants.

Italy has seen more than 650,000 arrivals on its shores since 2014.

“Since this morning a large boat with 450 illegal immigrants on board has been in waters patrolled by Malta, which has taken responsibility for it,” Salvini wrote on Facebook.

The boats also often carry refugees, as did one with some 30 Syrians who were picked up by the Italian coast guard earlier on Friday. They were taken to the island of Lampedusa.

Salvini added: “But hours later no one has moved, and the boat is again heading toward Italy … This boat cannot and must not arrive.”

Minutes later, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who is a member of 5-Star, also urged Malta to act.

“According to the maritime law, it’s Malta that must send its own ships and open its own ports,” he said on Twitter. “Our coast guard can act, if needed, in support, but Malta should immediately do its duty.”

A spokesman said the Maltese government is following developments, but had no further comment. The large boats are particularly dangerous because they have often capsized in the past, trapping hundreds of people below deck as they sink.

PRESIDENT INTERVENES

Since taking office, Salvini has led a high-profile campaign to shut humanitarian rescue ships out of Italy’s ports, a move supported by 5-Star. But the League leader’s hardline immigration stance rankled his coalition allies this week.

On Thursday, Salvini had refused to allow 67 migrants brought by the country’s coast guard to a Sicilian port to disembark — even though Toninelli, who oversees the coast guard, had told them they could.

Making a rare foray into day-to-day politics, President Sergio Mattarella contacted Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte late on Thursday to express his concern about the plight of migrants on the coast guard vessel.

After receiving Mattarella’s phone call, Conte, an academic who is close to 5-Star but not a member of either party, ordered the migrants be allowed off the ship. Salvini said he had learned of the president’s move with “regret and amazement”.

Now Salvini and Toninelli, whose parties were rivals before the March national elections, appear to be on the same page again.

The League and 5-Star have pledged to crackdown on migration even though arrivals from Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity, are down more than 85 percent this year.

Though arrivals have plummeted, people are still dying at sea. In the past four weeks, since charity boats have been locked out of Italian ports, more than 600 people, including children, have drowned or gone missing at sea, the International Organization for Migration estimates.

(Additional reporting by Chris Scicluna in VALLETTA; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Catherine Evans)

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