ROME (Reuters) - Dozens of migrants rescued at sea and brought to an Italian port on Thursday cannot disembark, the country’s far-right interior minister said, reversing a decision by a fellow minister and opening a rift within the government.
Just a few hours earlier, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli had authorised a coast guard ship carrying 67 migrants rescued off Libya to enter the port of Trapani in Western Sicily.
“I will not authorise (their disembarkation),” Salvini told a news conference following a meeting of European Union interior ministers in Innsbruck, Austria. “If someone does it in my place, he will assume the judicial, moral and political responsibility for it.”
The Diciotti coast guard vessel has arrived in port, but no one has yet been let off the ship.
Salvini, who is also leader of the League party and deputy prime minister, is in charge of immigration policy and borders, while Toninelli, who is a member of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, is in charge of ports and the coast guard.
The two rival parties formed a coalition on June 1, pledging to crack down on migration even though arrivals from Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity, are down more than 85 percent this year.
Since taking office, Salvini has led a high-profile campaign to shut humanitarian rescue ships out of Italy’s ports, a move supported by 5-Star. But Salvini’s hardline immigration stance appeared to rankle his coalition allies this week.
Instead of a foreign-flagged charity ship, the latest batch of migrants were initially picked up off the Libyan coast by an Italian-flagged supply vessel.
“If the ship has an Italian flag, it’s complicated to tell it not to come to an Italian port because it creates a dangerous precedent,” 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday.
The supply vessel picked up the migrants on Monday and later asked the Italian coast guard to take them off its hands, citing concern about their aggressive reaction when it seemed they might be returned to Libya.
Salvini said either someone should be charged for threatening the crew of the Italian supply ship, or the captain lied about tensions on board to convince the coast guard to intervene, in which case his company “must pay”, he said.
“I don’t want to be fooled with. Until there’s clarity about what happened, I won’t authorise anyone to disembark the Diciotti,” Salvini said.
Also on Thursday, Salvini asked EU interior ministers to declare Libya a place of safety where migrants can be taken after they are picked up at sea. German, Austrian and French ministers agreed it could be done, Salvini said.
“I’ve never heard the winds of change blowing so hard in Europe,” Salvini said in Innsbruck.
However, according to international law, refugees cannot be returned to a place where their lives are put in danger. Both the United Nations and European Union have acknowledged that Libya is not safe.
“I visited Libya two months ago. The situation is still chaotic there,” Europe’s Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said in Innsbruck.
Salvini got unexpected support on Thursday.
U.S. President Donald Trump said during a press conference in Brussels on Thursday after a NATO meeting that “immigration is taking over Europe”, adding that the new Italian government came to power because of its “strong immigration policies”.
Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle in INNSBRUCK, Austria; Editing by Toby Chopra