With the usual brusqueness of a man who thinks there is no problem sloganeering can’t solve, Matteo Salvini tried to cut the debate short on the latest crisis. “The problem is not the 40 migrants on board the Trenton, but the 650,000 who arrived in Italy in recent years,” the Interior Minister said Thursday.
Salvini was referring to the latest ship that arrived at the Sicilian coast, carrying the survivors of a shipwreck that occurred Tuesday off the coast of Libya. For four days, it remained at anchor in front of the port of Augusta waiting for permission to allow them to disembark. The spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Flavio Di Giacomo, asked the government for the umpteenth time to not oppose the disembarking of the survivors: “It is urgent to authorize the landing, because the survivors need immediate assistance,” he said. Finally it was allowed to dock at Sicily.
The Interior Ministry’s decision to close the ports to ships who are giving aid to migrants in the Mediterranean is likely to lead to further repeats of the Aquarius case. Only this time, the victim of the new trademark Salvinian policy was not a humanitarian ship but rather the Trenton, a ship belonging to the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet. What’s more, there is tragic news regarding the fate of at least 12 migrants who have lost their lives in the shipwreck, and whose bodies were not recovered.
It all began last Tuesday. At 12:36 p.m., the Trenton sent a direct email to the Berlin office of the German NGO Sea Watch, asking to get into contact with their ship. The Americans sent this message after they had intervened to rescue a rubber raft full of migrants about 20 miles off the Libyan coast. This first email is followed up by another at 1:43 p.m., sent directly to the Sea Watch ship: “This time, the Trenton notified us that they were in the process of rescuing 40 survivors and recovering 12 dead bodies,” said the NGO’s spokesperson, Giorgia Linardi.
The Trenton asked the NGO to take the migrants on board so that the US vessel could continue its own mission. The Sea Watch ship, which was located far from where the shipwreck had taken place, agreed to cooperate, but said that it first needed written permission from the MRCC in Rome to disembark the migrants in a safe harbor no farther away than 350 miles, a maximum of one day and a half away. Behind this requirement was the fear that the Sea Watch would find itself stuck with the migrants on board, like their colleagues on the Aquarius. “We also informed the Trenton that we could not take over the bodies, because we have no cold storage facilities,” Linardi went on. “In any case, we have never been to the point where the shipwreck occurred; instead, we went to meet with the Trenton.”
For 24 hours, the humanitarian ship belonging to the German NGO and the American warship were left in a holding pattern next to each other, waiting for the green light from Rome for the transfer of the survivors—men, women and children. However, after the continuing silence from Italy, the US ship decided to leave on its own and head toward Sicily.
Nothing more was known, however, about the fate of the bodies of the 12 migrants who died in the sinking. There was no mention of them in the information from the US Sixth Fleet, which only mentioned aid given to “40 distressed people” who were “immediately brought aboard Trenton and provided with food, water, clothing and medical care.”
When suspicions grew that the bodies had been abandoned in the water, a second statement was put out aiming to set the story straight. “During the operation,” it explains, “the Trenton crew initially observed approximately 12 bodies in the water that appeared to be unresponsive. The crew prioritized in recovering those who needed immediate help. The RHIBs and Fast Rescue Boat conducted a follow-up search for these bodies, but did not find any additional persons at the scene.”