A charity is preparing to take the Italian government to court after officials refused to allow 35 migrants rescued at sea off its ship.
The migrants – deemed by officials as “healthy” – were told to stay on board the rescue vessel in Sicily, while another 144 were allowed to disembark.
The stand-off came as Rome repeated its vow to halt migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean and the ship’s captain has since refused authorities’ demands to leave the port.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni used her maiden speech to MPs in late October to highlight the issue, saying she wanted to “stop the people traffickers from having the choice of deciding who enters Italy”.
Far-right infrastructure minister Matteo Salvini told Italian radio on Monday it was not just people who were being trafficked in increasingly dangerous “organised trips”, but weapons and drugs too.
Italy is one of the main entry points into Europe and since the start of the year 85,000 migrants have arrived on boats, according to the UN.
Migrants set sail in small, overcrowded boats from North Africa, often get into distress and are rescued by charity vessels.
SOS Humanity – which sails under a German flag – was one of two rescue vessels allowed to dock in Catania, Sicily, over the weekend. It had already been at sea for 13 days, waiting for a “place of safety”. Two other ships remain at sea.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi argued that those who did not qualify as vulnerable would have to leave Italian waters and should be taken care of by the “flag state”, which in this case would be Germany.
But according to Till Rummenhohl, SOS Humanity’s head of operations, the decisions over who qualified as vulnerable had taken place under “arbitrary and inadequate conditions”.
The German charity says a decree by Italian minister that allowed the move breaks both Italian and international law.
SOS Humanity is now appealing to the Administrative Regional Tribunal in Rome against the decree, as well as beginning “fast track” proceedings in Catania itself, so that those remaining on board can have their asylum claims heard “on land”.