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Italy's right-wing ministers crack down on NGOs helping migrants entering by sea


Italy's civil aviation agency says it's preventing aircraft that belong to migrant rescue organizations from operating out of several Mediterranean islands, including Sicily. Tens of thousands of migrants sail from North Africa every year, and as Willem Marx reports, these aircraft restrictions are just the latest move by some inside of Italy's government to try to rein in rescue groups.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Libyan Coast Guard, Libyan Coast Guard, we're observing your reckless operation. We're observing your reckless operation.

WILLEM MARX: In a cockpit video provided by the NGO Sea-Watch and recorded in early March, a speedboat paid for by Italian police, but piloted by Libya's controversial coast guard, seized one of three small dinghies filled with migrants in the middle of the Mediterranean.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now there are people in the water. There are many people in the water.

MARX: Filmed from the air, dozens of migrants seem to realize they might be forced back to Libya and jumped ship. At that point, the Libyan coast guard, accused by the U.N. of crimes against humanity for its treatment of migrants, starts to shoot.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They are shooting, I think I saw some shooting.


MARX: A large nearby ship operated by a German nonprofit called SOS Humanity circles the scene, waiting for the coast guard to back off so it can safely scoop up survivors.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's a close rescue effort, Humanity 1, which was already in the rescue of those people, who are interfering in this rescue.

MARX: Days later, Italian authorities detained the Humanity after it had disembarked 77 of those survivors at a port in Southern Italy. Italian government officials claim the Humanity and its crew had endangered lives. But a judge soon dismissed those allegations and freed the ship to resume its work.

The ship detention form part of a yearslong pattern of policies that right-wing Italian ministers have introduced to block the work of such rescue organizations. In early May, officials promised to prevent aircraft, like the one that filmed that Libyan encounter, from using airstrips on Sicily and several other Italian islands.

One group called Sea-Watch says it simply tries to fill the space left by governments in the southern Mediterranean, among the busiest migrant routes on Earth. It operates several planes and boats from a tiny island, Lampedusa, that over the past decade's become a major geographical gateway for migrants to reach Europe.

Sea-Watch's aircraft spent hours at a time over the water, watching for actions by Libyan and Tunisian security boats that breach international law. They pinpoint vessels in distress for others to rescue, and also document when European authorities fail to provide assistance to migrant boats in difficulty. The two nearest European nations, Italy and Malta, are unable or unwilling to carry out enough rescues, according to Sea-Watch's Oliver Kulikowski.

OLIVER KULIKOWSKI: Malta is basically not rescuing at all. And Italy is rescuing but very close to its own shore. So this leaves a vast area in the central Mediterranean basically unprotected.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Italian).

MARX: The rhetoric against migrants and asylum-seekers has ramped up in recent years at the rallies of Italy's right-wing political parties. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party are in coalition government with Lega, another right-wing anti-immigrant party that several years ago pushed Italian ports to deny entrance to rescue vessels entirely.

ANNALISA TARDINO: (Speaking Italian).

MARX: "In that year, only 15,000 migrants arrived compared to 150,000 last year," says Annalisa Tardino, a lawyer turned lawmaker from Sicily who represents Lega in the European Parliament. She's referring to a 12-month period from mid-2018 when NGO ships were prevented from docking and migrant sea crossings fell significantly.

TARDINO: (Speaking Italian).

MARX: "Knowing that we didn't have an open port," she says, "the smugglers wouldn't let the migrants leave the African coastline, and that year, deaths in the Mediterranean were significantly reduced."

TARDINO: (Speaking Italian).

MARX: So if rescue groups cared about saving lives, in Tardino's view, they should support such port closures rather than assist migrants in danger. But U.N. experts say it's not so simple. And right now, it's only these groups that are operating in international waters far from shore.

FLAVIO DI GIACOMO: Starting from 2015 and then even more started from 2017, the rescue and sea patrolling system in our sea, the Mediterranean, was not as good as it was a few years before. So the NGOs actually were filling the gap.

MARX: Flavio Di Giacomo, at the U.N. International Organization for Migration, says the roughly 600 deaths so far this year shows such a system must improve, given the risks involved.

DI GIACOMO: The Mediterranean is very dangerous, and the boats used by migrants they are not fit to travel.

MARX: The rescue group say such dangerous sailing demands safety support, but Italy's prevailing political currents show few signs of changing course. At least for now, though, Sea-Watch is vowing to flout the new restrictions and keep on flying.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Willem Marx
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