Migrant ships barred access to Italian ports because of coronavirus

German-based charity Sea-Eye calls on Berlin to accept the stranded refugees
Wednesday 08/04/2020
 A file picture shows a crew member of the German NGO Sea-Eye migrant rescue ship ‘Alan Kurdi’ taking part in a training exercise off the North African coast in the western Mediterranean Sea. (REUTERS)
Dire circumstances. A file picture shows a crew member of the German NGO Sea-Eye migrant rescue ship ‘Alan Kurdi’ taking part in a training exercise off the North African coast in the western Mediterranean Sea. (REUTERS)

ROME – Italian ports cannot be considered safe because of the coronavirus epidemic and will therefore not let charity migrant boats dock and disembark migrants and refugees, the Italian government has ruled.

The decision was taken late on Tuesday after a ship operated by the German non-governmental group Sea-Eye picked up some 150 people off Libya and headed towards Italy.

“For the entire duration of the national health emergency caused by the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Italian ports cannot guarantee the requisites needed to be classified and defined as a place of safety,” the decree said.

The measure, the first of its kind in Italian history, effectively closes ports to rescue boats at a time that departures from Libya are believed to have increased in the last week with the onset of good weather in the Mediterranean.

The national emergency is set to expire July 31, but the deadline might be extended.

Tuesday’s order was signed by the interior and transport ministers, as well as Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who comes from a leftist party that has always supported campaigns for migrant protection and charity operations.

After a relative lull in arrivals of boat migrants from Africa, numbers had started to pick up again in the first two months of the year only to fall back sharply in March as Italy was hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

A total of 17,127 people are believed to have died from the virus in Italy, the highest number anywhere in the world, while 135,586 cases have been confirmed since the outbreak came to light February 21.

Charity ships which regularly patrol the coast of Libya looking to rescue migrants from flimsy boats initially withdrew from the Mediterranean at the onset of the health crisis, but the Sea-Eye ship Alan Kurdi returned to the area last week.

“Even when life in Europe has almost come to a halt, human rights must be protected,” the group wrote in a tweet on Tuesday, announcing it had rescued 150 people. “Now our guests need a port of safety.”

In a separate statement, the charity called on Germany to take in the migrants. “After all, Germany is our flag state,” it said, adding that Berlin had just managed to bring home 200,000 citizens stranded abroad because of the coronavirus.

“Surely it must be conceivable and humanly possible to send a plane for 150 people seeking protection to southern Europe in order to evacuate the people immediately,” it said.

“In Germany, there are approximately 150 cities in the Coalition of Safe Ports who declared their readiness to receive people on the move,” said Sea-Eye chairman Gordan Isler.

Far-right former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini controversially declared Italy’s ports “closed” to migrant rescue ships in 2018, claiming that migrants represented a threat to national security. Now, Rome is declaring that Italy poses a threat to the health of migrants due to the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the European country.

(with news agencies)