Italy Again at Odds With EU Partners Over Rescued Migrants

By Fayçal Benhassain | July 4, 2019 | 7:50pm EDT
Italian police arrest Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete in Lampedusa, Sicily. (Screengrab photo by AFP/Getty Images)

Paris ( – Radically different approaches to illegal migration have again put Italy at odds again with its leading European Union partners, after Italian authorities arrested the German captain of a ship which disobeyed an Italian directive not to land migrants, rescued in the Mediterranean, on Italian soil.

Operated by Sea Watch, a German non-governmental organization, the ship called Sea Watch 3 landed 42 migrants at an Italian port on the island of Lampedusa on Sunday, in violation of Interior Minister Mattéo Salvini’s instruction.

The arrest of the vessel’s captain, Carola Rackete, drew condemnation both in Germany and in France. An Italian judge has since released her without charge, but the controversy continues.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told public television in his country, “Italy is not just any state. Italy is in the middle of the European Union and a founding state of the European Union. That’s why we have the right to expect from a country like Italy that it manages such a business otherwise.”

Sea Watch 3, which sails under the Dutch flag, had been in international waters for more than two weeks after recovering 53 migrants from a boat off the Libyan coast. Eleven migrants were handed over to the Italian coastguard for medical reasons.

Rackete docked the ship after two weeks of negotiations, and the 42 remaining migrants are now at a reception center on Lampedusa. Five E.U. countries agreed to take the 42 migrants in varying numbers, with France agreeing to take ten of them.

France’s interior ministry said French officials would allow the ten to be “transferred without delay onto our territory,” where they will apply for refugee status.

The ministry denounced Salvini’s strategy, saying “France has already welcomed to its territory in recent months nearly 400 people who landed in Italy and Malta and are in need of protection,” it said in a statement, adding that that had been done in coordination with the E.U. and other member-states.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye slammed Salvini’s approach.

“There is a rule in maritime law that says you have to be able to drop off migrants in the nearest and safest seaport,” she said in a radio interview. “Italy has to respect international standards in this area.”

Ndiaye said France expects the E.U. to show “solidarity” on the issue.

Salvini hit back, saying Italy did not need to take lessons from anyone, France especially.

Since the French presidency has said all French ports are open, he said, Italy will suggest the French port of Marseille or the French island of Corsica as destination for migrant ships.

Italy’s approach won support of a lawmaker from France’s far-right National Rally, Stéphane Ravier.

“The only method that will stop any more dramas in the Mediterranean is the Salvini method,” she told French television.

“It is out of question to give you any rights if you set a foot in our house,” she said. “And you won’t be able to set down the second foot because you’ll be expelled”.

Meanwhile Martine Aubry, the socialist mayor of Lille in the north of France, has said she is ready to welcome the ten migrants from the Sea Watch 3 to settle in that city.

“I have always thought that France and other European countries are not doing enough to fulfill their humanitarian duty,” she told French television, praising Rackete.

Last summer the Aquarius, a boat belonging to a French NGO with 629 rescued migrants on board, was refused permission to dock in Italy and Malta. Spain eventually allowed it to dock in its port of Valencia, and the migrants were resettled, through negotiation, in France, Germany, Portugal, as well as in Spain.

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