Italy closes ports to refugee ships because of coronavirus

A national emergency blocking ports for refugees and migrants will expire on July 31, but deadline might be extended.

    An Italian Red Cross agent wearing protective suit and mask puts a bracelet to a child as migrants rescued in the Mediterranean disembark from the Sea Watch NGO's ship on February 27, 2020, in the port of Messina, Sicily [File: Giovanni Isolino/AFP]
    An Italian Red Cross agent wearing protective suit and mask puts a bracelet to a child as migrants rescued in the Mediterranean disembark from the Sea Watch NGO's ship on February 27, 2020, in the port of Messina, Sicily [File: Giovanni Isolino/AFP]

    Italian ports cannot be considered safe because of the coronavirus epidemic and will not let charity refugee boats dock, the government has ruled.

    The decision was taken late on Tuesday after a ship operated by the German non-governmental group Sea-Eye picked up some 150 people off Libya and headed towards Italy.

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    "For the entire duration of the national health emergency caused by the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Italian ports cannot guarantee the requisites needed to be classified and defined as a place of safety," the decree said.

    The national emergency is set to expire on July 31, but the deadline might be extended.

    Tuesday's order was signed by the interior and transport ministers, as well as Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who comes from a left-wing party that has always supported campaigns for migrant protection and charity operations.

    After a relative lull in arrivals of boat migrants from Africa, numbers had started to pick up again in the first two months of the year only to fall back sharply in March as Italy was hit by the coronavirus epidemic.

    A total of 17,127 people have died from the virus in Italy, the highest number anywhere in the world, while 135,586 cases have been confirmed since the outbreak came to light on February 21.

    Charity ships which regularly patrol the coast of Libya looking to rescue refugees from flimsy boats initially withdrew from the Mediterranean at the onset of the health crisis, but the Sea-Eye ship Alan Kurdi returned to the area last week.

    "Even when life in Europe has almost come to a halt, human rights must be protected," the group wrote in a tweet on Tuesday, announcing it had rescued 150 people. "Now our guests need a port of safety."

    In a separate statement, the charity called on Germany to take in the refugees and migrants. "After all, Germany is our flag state," it said, adding that Berlin had just managed to bring home 200,000 citizens stranded abroad because of the coronavirus.

    "Surely it must be conceivable and humanly possible to send a plane for 150 people seeking protection to southern Europe in order to evacuate the people immediately," it said.

    According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 18,337 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe so far this year, while 241 have died during the journey.

    SOURCE: News agencies