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.