By Guglielmo Mangiapane
LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) – A charity rescue ship carrying 134 migrants, mostly Africans, waited off the coast of Italy on Friday as a battle between former political allies in Rome stopped it docking at the southern island of Lampedusa.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has ordered his officials to prevent the boat disembarking the migrants rescued off Libya over the past two weeks, in defiance of his own prime minister and despite six European Union nations agreeing to take them.
The migrants’ plight underlines the breakdown of Italy’s ruling coalition and how immigration has become central to Salvini’s plan to take his right-wing League party out of government, drag the nation to elections and return to power as prime minister.
France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg have said they will help relocate the migrants, but the reaction from Salvini’s interior ministry was sceptical.
“It is not clear that the other countries are willing,” a ministry spokesman said.
Thirteen people, some seriously traumatised and others requiring medical attention, were moved off the Open Arms boat, run by the Spanish charity group of the same name, on Thursday.
“They are self-harming and getting angry with other people in the group,” Alessandro di Benedetto, a psychologist with Italian aid group Emergency, told RAI radio after examining five of those brought ashore.
“Some of them are having suicidal thoughts, so they think it is better to die here than go back there,” he added.
Salvini’s tough anti-immigration stance has helped boost his popularity at the expense of coalition partners the 5-Star Movement, but his surprise bid to bring down the government and call an election is running into trouble.
On Friday, he tweeted a picture of himself gazing upwards and the message: “Timidity? Appeals to false notions of compassion? Open ports? Thousands of arrivals? Not in my name! Italy, hold your head up high again!”
In Brussels, a European Commission spokeswoman said the EU welcomed the other countries’ cooperation and was ready to give operational support once a solution was found for landing the rescued migrants.
LAND IN SIGHT
The Open Arms is anchored off the coast of Lampedusa, which was the scene of mass arrivals for years before Italy closed its ports to the ships who rescue people setting out from Africa in search of a better life in Europe.
Salvini argues that Italy, which lies close to the Libyan coast, should no longer be the main gateway for migrants fleeing Africa for Europe. He accuses the charities of becoming “taxis” for people-smuggling gangs.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who belongs to no political party but is close to 5-Star, accused Salvini of exploiting the issue.
This standoff is the latest in a series that have seen charity boats caught up in European political tussles over the past year, drifting at sea as states argue over who is responsible for opening their ports.
“We are living an unbearable agony on board,” Open Arms said on Twitter, posting a video of people lying close together on the deck, swaddled in blankets.
“Land in sight and no solution. The rights of 134 people are being violated with every passing minute. If European politicians are incapable of setting limits, what do we have left?”
Citizens of Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria and Cameroon are among those on board, a spokeswoman for Open Arms said.
The Open Arms boat was allowed into Italian waters on Thursday after an administrative court in Rome overruled a ban on its entering that Salvini had previously imposed.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Regida in Brussels, Isla Binnie in Milan and Ingrid Melander in Madrid, Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Angus MacSwan)