Italy moves to end migrant crisis with NGO crackdown, naval mission
Italy on Wednesday dispatched a navy patrol boat to Libya and seized an NGO rescue ship in dramatic steps aimed at ending the migrant crisis that has engulfed Europe in recent years.
The twin moves came as new figures revealed a surprise drop in July in the number of mainly African asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving at the country's southern ports, suggesting efforts to close the Libya-Italy route into Europe could finally be bearing fruit.
The Iuventa, a boat operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet, was "preventatively" impounded on the Italian island of Lampedusa on the orders of a prosecutor based in Trapani, Sicily, the state police force said.
"Enquiries begun in October 2016, and conducted with the use of sophisticated techniques and investigative technology, have produced circumstantial evidence of the motorboat Iuventa being used for activities facilitating illegal immigration," a statement said.
More details were to be provided at a press conference later.
Earlier, the Italian parliament gave the go-ahead for a naval mission in support of the Libyan coastguard's fight against the people traffickers behind the surge in migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
- 'No blockade' -
As part of the mission, approved by the Libyan authorities, the navy patrol boat Commandante Borsini entered the North African state's territorial waters on Wednesday afternoon, en route for the capital Tripoli, the navy said.
On board was a small advance team charged with coordinating planned joint actions with the Libyan coastguard.
Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said Italy was providing technical support, not seeking to impose a "hostile" naval blockade designed to prevent the departure of migrant boats.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said last week that the naval mission was being organised following a request from Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of conflict-torn Libya's UN-backed unity government.
The number of migrant arrivals in Italy in July was down dramatically on the same month last year, suggesting efforts to train up and better equip the North African country's coastguard could already be having an impact.
The Interior Ministry said 11,193 new arrivals had been registered in July, compared with 23,552 in July 2016.
Arrivals for the first seven months of this year were 95,214, up 0.78 percent on the same period last year.
The new naval mission is expected to involve a logistics ship and maintenance support for the Libyans, as well as the Commandante Borsini.
Rome had initially hoped to send six ships into Libyan waters but had to downsize the mission after objections from the fledgling administration in Tripoli.
- 'Risk of torture' -
Some 600,000 mostly African migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya since the start of 2014, putting the country's reception facilities under strain and the centre-left government under pressure with elections looming next year.
Officials believe boats being sent back to Libyan ports will have a powerful deterrent effect on would-be migrants considering paying traffickers for passage to Europe.
But the approach has been criticised by international rights groups who say people returned to troubled Libya face detention in squalid camps and abuse at the hands of traffickers.
"After years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour," said Human Rights Watch's Judith Sunderland.
The move to impound the Iuventa came as Italy began enforcing a controversial code of conduct for charity boats rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.
Jugend Rettet was among six of nine NGOs operating search-and-rescue activities in waters off Libya to reject the new rules.
Italian authorities say they are necessary to ensure the boats are not effectively encouraging migrants to embark on the perilous crossing.
The NGOs have particularly objected to a requirement to allow an Italian police official to travel on each boat and a ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another while still at sea, which they say could result in avoidable deaths.
© 2017 AFP