'Go to Hamburg': Italy refuses safe harbour to rescued refugees

Matteo Salvini tells charity ship to take 64 refugees and migrants rescued off Libyan coast to Germany's Hamburg.

    Crew members stand on the deck of the migrant search and rescue ship operated by German NGO Sea-Eye, off the coast of Malta [File: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]
    Crew members stand on the deck of the migrant search and rescue ship operated by German NGO Sea-Eye, off the coast of Malta [File: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]
    Correction Apr 4, 2019: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the German charity involved in the refugee rescues. It is Sea Eye, not Sea Watch.

    Italy's far-right interior minister has refused a request to take in 64 refugees and asylum seekers rescued off the coast of Libya by a German charity ship.

    Matteo Salvini said on Wednesday the rescue ship, like others before it, was not welcome in Italy.

    "A ship with a German flag, German NGO, German ship owner, captain from Hamburg. It responded in Libyan waters and asks for a safe port. Good, go to Hamburg," he said.

    Sea Eye, the German charity, said it's vessel, Alan Kurdi, carried out the rescue off the coast of Zuwarah in Libya after authorities failed to answer a call for help from the stricken rubber boat on Wednesday morning.

    The people brought to safety included 10 women, five children and a newborn baby, the group said.

    "They're all safe and sound on board our vessel ... The Libyan coastguard is not answering or rescuing."

    Sea Eye also said 50 more people it had been searching for since Monday remained missing.

    In a Twitter post, the group urged Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to send a search and rescue aircraft to help its vessel, Alan Kurdi, locate the missing people, because the Libyan coastguard "does not send ships". 

    In a Twitter post in German, it added: "50 people are still missing. We searched for them all night."

    Both Italy and Malta have refused to accept rescue ships operated by humanitarian groups in the Mediterranean, leading to numerous delays in getting rescued people to land. 

    Italy had been taking in most refugees and migrants picked up from unsafe and overcrowded boats off the coast of Libya, but a populist government that took over last year shut the country's ports, saying those rescued must be distributed among European Union member states.

    In January, 47 people, including 15 minors, were forced to remain on another German rescue ship for nearly two weeks when Italy refused to let them disembark.

    Rome ended the standoff when seven other European countries offered to take in the rescued people.

    Italy's tough line on the issue has seen many boats that pick up refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea return them to Libya, where the United Nations says they face trafficking, kidnap, rape and torture. 

    On Saturday, Maltese authorities charged three teenagers with committing an act of "terrorism" for their suspected role in hijacking a merchant ship that rescued them off the Libyan coast.

    The tankers' captain, Nader el-Hiblu, said some of the refugees revolted when they realised the ship was heading to Libya, and forced its crew to turn north to Europe.

    In recent months, boatloads of rescued refugees and migrants have refused to disembark in Libya, prompting local authorities to use force.

    In 2018, 2,262 people died at sea while trying to reach Europe, the UN said.

    The perilous journey has killed 311 people so far this year, according to the Missing Migrants Project, an NGO that tracks the deaths of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers along international migration routes.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies