ROME (Reuters) - Italian coastguards have impounded two charity rescue boats at the port of Palermo citing “technical and operational” irregularities, which the owners denounced as an excuse to block life-saving missions at sea.
The seizure of the German-flagged Alan Kurdi and Spanish-flagged Aita Mari followed a sharp rise in the number of migrants reaching Italy, which has angered and embarrassed the government as it battles the coronavirus epidemic.
Italy used to be a prime route into Europe for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants, but the numbers fell sharply in recent years because of a crackdown in Libya against smugglers. However, there has been a pick-up in 2020.
Charities that rescue migrants at sea have accused the Italian authorities of interfering with their operations, increasing the risk to human life. Italy says NGO boats make the problem worse by tempting people to make the perilous voyage.
The Alan Kurdi, which picked up 150 migrants off the Libyan coast last month and brought them to Italy, was impounded on Tuesday. The Aita Mari, which had brought 34 people to Sicily, was sequestrated on Wednesday.
The coastguard said in a statement that work would be needed on both boats before they could return to sea, adding that the respective flag-countries would have to intervene because they were responsible for compliance with ship safety. No further details were immediately available.
The German group Sea-Eye, which operates the Alan Kurdi, denounced the seizure as “grotesque”, saying the boat had just returned from a five-week refit.
“Detaining our ship is pure harassment (aimed at) grinding civil sea rescue efforts to a halt bit by bit,” said Sea-Eye spokesman Julian Pahlke.
Both Italy and nearby Malta have closed their ports to migrant boats, saying they cannot help them because of the coronavirus crisis. Almost 30,000 people have died in Italy of the COVID-19 disease, while five people have died in Malta.
Despite the closures, migrants have continued to arrive, with some 4,069 people reaching Italy so far this year, compared with 842 in the same period in 2019, the Interior Ministry says.
Malta announced on Thursday it had chartered a second tourist boat to hold newly rescued migrants offshore after the armed forces saved 120 people from a dinghy overnight.
An initial boat was chartered last month to hold 57 migrants outside Malta’s territorial waters until the European Union found a way to rehouse them. A deal has not yet been reached.
“In our migrant centres we have 4,000 migrants and we have no room for any more,” said Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo.
The rise in arrivals comes at a time when Italy is considering giving work permits to irregular migrants to help farms harvest their crops, drawing the ire of the far-right League party - Italy’s most popular party.
“Clearly, if you’re talking about amnesties, regularisations and permits, the message that we give to the other side of the Mediterranean is: ‘Go, go, go, sooner or later they will sort you out’,” League leader Matteo Salvini said on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Wladimiro Pantaleone; Editing by Peter Graff and Nick Macfie