When the Sea Watch 3, flying the Dutch flag, docked at the harbor in Catania and unloaded its 47 migrants, including 15 unaccompanied minors, many wearing the shirt of the Red Cross, they hugged each other and the crew members of the German NGO.
It was the end of a nightmare that had lasted seven days on the open sea and five at anchor, just a mile off the coast of Syracuse, as they were held hostage to the squabbling among EU governments and to the conflict between the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, and the judiciary. Salvini is the object of a request to allow a criminal trial sent by the Court of Catania to the Senate. If the request is approved, Salvini would have to stand trial for aggravated kidnapping in the “Diciotti” case, in which another ship carrying rescued migrants was not allowed to dock last year.
At the docks, an impressive and unique administrative system had been set up by the local prefecture to welcome the migrants, and there was also a banner which read, “Stop the attack on refugees.” The first to disembark were the minors. “They asked us where they were,” recounted Luigi Corsaro, president of the Sicilian Red Cross. “We showed them a map and pointed to the city of Catania.” They are between 14 and 17 years old, and come from Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Sudan.
“Their physical condition does not pose particular concerns. Certainly, the most important problem is the psychological condition of these people who have been waiting aboard the ship to land for many days,” Corsaro explained. They are very tired, “physically exhausted, but happy to have arrived, and they thanked us a million times,” added the representative of the CRI emergency services in Catania, Mara Basile. They were immediately transferred to a facility that belongs to the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (FAMI) of the Interior Ministry.
The Juvenile Court of Catania has already appointed guardians for each child, who will be responsible for all the decision for their protection. “Our court has received offers from all over Italy from people who are willing to be their guardians, but the appointments have already been made and they are definitive,” confirmed Maria Francesca Pricoco, the President of the Court. The other 32 migrants, all adults, were taken by bus right after landing to the Messina hotspot, where they will remain for now, waiting to be redistributed to the European countries that have agreed to welcome them.
However, after the landing, on the orders of the Prosecutor of Catania, officers of the financial police, the harbor mobile police unit and the port authorities came aboard the Sea Watch 3 for “formal assessments,” meaning administrative formalities and an investigation of whether anyone had engaged in people trafficking. The choice to divert the migrants to Catania, instead of letting them land in Syracuse, where the ship had remained at anchor five days and where the local prefecture had already been preparing to receive them, looked very suspicious. “We have to go to Catania now. That means, we are moving away from a port of safety, towards a port where there is a prosecutor, known for his agenda regarding sea rescue NGOs. If this is not a political move, we don’t know what is. We hope for the best and expect the worst,” said Sea Watch on their official Twitter account as the ship set sail to Catania at 5am on Thursday.
The chief prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, has been keeping an investigation open for two years about the alleged complicity between NGOs and traffickers of human beings, which has led to exactly nothing. Zuccaro also asked for Salvini to not be charged in the “Diciotti case,” a petition that was thrown out by the Court of Catania, who asked the Senate for permission to proceed with the trial of the minister for kidnapping with the aggravating circumstance of the presence of minors. Now, the ball is in Zuccaro’s court.
The commander of the Sea Watch, Jerome Petersen, and the entire crew have been interrogated on board the ship, and it was confirmed on Friday that the ship would be held in Catania by the Coast Guard for a supposed “threat to the safety of navigation,” making it impossible for them to return to their search and rescue mission. Meanwhile, the chief prosecutor of Syracuse, Fabio Scavone, had opened a file on the Sea Watch 3 but had found that no breach of the law had been committed by the captain and crew.
Salvini, of course, had a different opinion: “I don’t want to take the place of the judicial authorities, but my understanding is that there are several signs of irregularities regarding the Sea Watch 3 ship: on a stormy sea, instead of going to Tunisia, they came to Italy. That is strange, at the very least,” the minister said on Porta a Porta on Thursday evening. When asked how many of the 47 migrants would remain in Italy, he answered that “we’re taking just one.”
Meanwhile, in an official complaint filed from Turin, the “Lasciateci entrare” NGO and a group of lawyers from Legal Team Italy requested that the prosecutor’s office in Syracuse should investigate the possibility that, in the Sea Watch 3 affair, Salvini may be guilty of an attack on the constitutional order, abuse of power, kidnapping, violence against persons and torture.