Italy to 'punish troublemakers' over latest migrant rescue ship

Italy continues to take a hard line when it comes to the flood of migrants seeking to flee from Africa, primarily from Libya, and make their way to Europe. This is particularly true of the various ships operating in the waters off of Italy who have been dumping their human cargo at Italian ports for the last few years. We recently learned that the Italians have been investigating some of these ships to find if they are even operating in those waters legally. One ship, in particular, appeared to have lied about their country of origin and the flag they were flying.

This week there was yet another brouhaha involving a ship picking up migrants who were stranded at sea. The complicating factor was that this was one if Italy’s own vessels. (Associated Press)

Italy’s transport minister said Tuesday an investigation is underway into the latest rescue of migrants off Libya, in which an Italian ship tending to an oil rig picked up some 60 would-be refugees.

Minister Danilo Toninelli vowed to “punish the troublemakers” and praised the Italian coast guard for taking on the migrants from the tug Vos Thalassa. Toninelli tweeted Tuesday that the migrants were “putting at risk the lives of the crew” of the Thalassa.

Citing interior ministry officials, news agency ANSA said the Thalassa intervened in the rescue in Libya’s search and rescue zone late Monday, even though the Libyan coast guard had been alerted to the distress call. Under Italy’s new hard-line, anti-migrant interior minister Matteo Salvini, Italy is seeking to have Libya’s coast guard rescue migrants and take them back, rather than letting them come to Italy.

It does seem as if Toninelli is being overly critical here. The tugboat that took in the migrants was not out on some sort of rescue mission. They were servicing an offshore oil rig and received a distress call. Further, after the safety of the migrants had been established, they turned them over to the Coast Guard, presumably for an eventual return trip to Libya.

Italy’s solution to this standoff may appear harsh, but it’s also relatively simple. They would like Libya to take the migrants who are caught (or rescued) attempting to cross the sea and keep them in refugee facilities there. It sounds as if a number of EU members are willing to kick in some funding to help establish and maintain such facilities. Is it really that outrageous of an idea?

This week, Italy’s Transport Minister is heading to a meeting of EU interior ministers in Austria. As we’ve covered here previously, Austria currently holds the revolving EU presidency and is attempting to put that power to good use. Austria is also one of the nations at the center of the “Axis of the Willing” who are attempting to harden Europe’s external borders and stem the tide of migrants seeking to permanently settle there.

Whether you agree with their approach or not, it seems obvious that Italy should have a seat at the table in these discussions. Given their proximity to Libya and Tunisia, both Italy and Malta are obvious targets for both migrants and human traffickers. That resulted in Italy taking in well over a half million migrants in just the past four years. In 2018, however, the tide started to turn as protests in Italy began to have an effect. Thus far this year, only 17,000 migrants have been taken in. That’s barely one fifth the number arriving by July of last year.

The EU has been facing a major schism over their migrant policy for quite a while now and they need to get this under control. Union leaders in Brussels need to understand that they have neither the authority or the power to keep forcing their will on all of their member nations in this matter. If they want to hold the union together, some compromises are clearly in order.

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