Analysis. Rescue ships in similar situations in the future will still have to fear attacks from government officials and threats to close the ports. But under current law, such a move would be illegal.

Italian ports are open – to close them is illegal

Two days ago, the Italian ship Mare Jonio, belonging to the NGO Mediterranea Save Humans, rescued 50 people fleeing from Nigeria, Gambia, Cameroon, Guinea and Senegal. The ship reached the port of Lampedusa on Tuesday evening, where it started offloading the survivors. Afterwards, the Mare Jonio and its crew were sequestered and euphemistically ordered to “remain available to the authorities.”

The successful landing of the rescued migrants was a rather unexpected outcome, after the continuous bombastic pronouncements to the contrary by the two vice-prime ministers throughout the day. Interior Minister Salvini claimed that Italy’s ports “were and remain closed”; while Di Maio (God help him) sternly admonished that “an Italian NGO cannot dare to disobey the Libyan Coast Guard.”

The fact remains that there is no decision by the Council of Ministers that enacts a closure of the ports. In any case, such a measure would be illegal from the point of view of both current law and constitutional provisions. The inescapable conclusion is that the Italian ports were and remain open.

However, there are also reckless political decisions, such as the so-called “Directive for the unified coordination of the surveillance of maritime borders and fighting illegal immigration” that Salvini put out on Monday night. According to this text, it’s possible that, among the 50 survivors rescued from the Ionian Sea (including minors), “persons may be concealed who are involved in terrorist activities or otherwise dangerous for public safety or public order.” The conclusion of the document is not that the authorities should conduct strict verifications of the possible and actual level of danger posed by each of them, but rather that all should be kept from landing indiscriminately.

For once, that’s not how it worked out. Tuesday, the ship was held a few hundred meters off the coast of Lampedusa, escorted by three ships of the Italian Coast Guard. It was the object of an inspection by the Guardia di Finanza (Italian Finance Police), which, after a round of checks that lasted six hours, stated that it hadn’t found anything amiss—apart from the state of the rescued people, who are “in a worn out condition.” That’s no wonder, given that they passed through Libya—certainly not a safe country—and its detention centers, in which “unimaginable horrors” are a common occurrence (to quote a recent UN report).

Then, the ship was given permission to land in Lampedusa—how this decision was actually taken remains unclear. However, all the ships in similar situations in the future will still have to fear the government’s wavering approach, torn apart from the inside by irreconcilable conflicts and subject to endless pressures from all sides, as well as possessing an unfortunate vocation for propaganda and demagoguery, which it calls upon from time in time as it tries to exploit the vagaries of the public mood that are bubbling up from the depths of the social body of the country.

There’s nothing really new about this, and one shouldn’t look at just the last four to five years: the temptation to reject migrants and asylum seekers has a history that is as ancient as it is petty. As an example, we recall an episode from 15 years ago that seems to have been completely forgotten today.

Back in 2004, the Cap Anamur vessel, owned by the eponymous NGO from Cologne, rescued 36 Sudanese refugees from the waters of the Sicilian Channel and was forced to remain at sea for three weeks. The ship’s captain, Stefan Schmidt, tells the story: “We went to help them, alerting the Italian authorities, and rescued them. Then, for three weeks, they kept us on the open seas because they did not want them to land on the Sicilian coast, and when we finally docked at Empedocle, they arrested us for abetting illegal immigration and we went to prison.”

He recounts the aftermath: “After five years, after the trial, we were acquitted. We hadn’t committed any crime, we had simply saved the lives of humans who were about to drown” (La Repubblica, April 29, 2017). Fortunately, this time, history failed to repeat itself.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!