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Italy: Diplomatic tensions flare as migrants head to Spain

Salvini has accused European aid groups of essentially operating taxi services for Libya-based human traffickers

Catania, Sicily: Italy summoned the French ambassador for consultations Wednesday after France accused the new populist government of cynical, irresponsible behaviour by refusing entry to a migrant ship, evidence that the standoff is having continentwide repercussions.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was to brief Parliament later Wednesday on the situation as the Aquarius and its 629 passengers continued their daylong, westward voyage to Spain.

Italy has defended its decision to refuse the Aquarius entry, saying it has never abandoned the ship and is escorting it to Valencia. Spain stepped up and offered the Aquarius safe harbour after Italy and Malta both refused.

On Wednesday, an Italian coast guard vessel docked in Catania, Sicily, with 932 migrants aboard in a sign that Italy under the populist 5-Star Movement and anti-migrant League is still accepting some migrants, but is forcing other countries to share the burden.

Two corpses were also aboard the vessel Diciotti.

Salvini has accused European aid groups of essentially operating taxi services for Libya-based human traffickers, and has said Italy will now refuse their rescue ships entry. Italian maritime vessels, however, are still docking in its ports.

The Diciotti was greeted in Catania’s port by activists criticising the new policy, with a banner draped at the port saying “Stop the attack on refugees.”

Cynicism and irresponsibility

French President Emmanuel Macron blasted what he called Italy’s cynicism and irresponsibility in turning away the Aquarius, which is operated by the humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee and the French-founded Doctors Without Borders.

Macron’s office said Tuesday that France doesn’t want to “start a precedent” that would allow some European countries to breach international laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants.

Salvini shot back that France has turned away thousands of migrants trying to reach France at Italy’s northern border at Ventimiglia. He accused France of having caused the instability in Libya that has allowed smuggling networks to thrive by spearheading the 2011 Nato-led military campaign that led to the downfall of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

“Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons about migration from countries that have always preferred to look away,” said a statement from the office of Premier Giuseppe Conte.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that it had convened the French ambassador for consultations over the French comments a day earlier.

The stand-off over the Aquarius appeared a clear tactic by Italy’s new government to force Europe’s hand at the upcoming summit of EU leaders in Brussels June 28-29. Italy for years has complained that it has been left largely alone to manage Europe’s migrant crisis, but the League-5-Star government says its tactics have finally gotten the point across.

Anti-migrant agenda

“Italy is again central and has woken up Europe,” Salvini tweeted Wednesday. “I hope all countries contribute to the common goal: defending borders, defending the Mediterranean.”

Salvini’s League campaigned during the March 4 national election on a strong anti-migrant agenda that included promises of mass expulsions of migrants already here. According to government figures, Italy has accepted 640,000 migrants since 2014, but the number of arrivals this year is at a five-year low: 14,441 since January.

The number of migrants arriving in Italy began plummeting last year after the Italian government under the centre-left Democratic Party negotiated controversial deals with Libya that beefed up its capacity to better patrol its coasts and discouraged land-based smugglers.

The Aquarius and two other Italian ships that have taken some of the migrants are now expected to arrive in Valencia on Saturday night, weather conditions permitting, said SOS Mediterranee’s co-founder Sophie Beau. The port is some 1,500km from where the ship had been on standby since Saturday night after both Italy and Malta refused it entry.

“It’s a relief for everyone, our teams and of course above all for the survivors to know that they are finally allowed to head to a safe port in Europe,” Beau told reporters in Marseille, France.

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