Italy continues to block African migrants from disembarking ship unless European countries offer to take some in

PHOTO: Migrants pray aboard the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti moored at port of Catania, Italy, Aug. 22, 2018.PlayOrietta Scardino/ANSA via AP
WATCH Migrants rescue-ship left adrift as Italy-Malta standoff continues

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reacted angrily to the news that a European Union meeting in Brussels today failed to reach an agreement about what to do with 150 migrants on an Italian coast guard ship in the Sicilian port of Catania, the Ansa news agency reported. Conte threatened “consequences” and accused other European countries of ‘‘hypocrisy.’’

As an act of defiance to the EU, Italy’s populist government is refusing to let the migrants, mostly Eritrean nationals, disembark from the Diciotti ship they have been on for eight days since they were rescued off the coast of Libya.

Following the rescue operation, the ship was forced to wait at sea for five days before being told which port to go to. However, since the ship arrived in the port of Catania three days ago, the migrants have not been given permission to disembark. The Italian government is insisting that unless other EU countries come forward and offer to receive some of the migrants, Italy will not allow them to step on Italian soil.

Luigi Di Maio, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, upped the ante on Thursday by threatening that the government could withhold Italy's annual 20 billion euro contribution to the EU unless other European countries offer to help.

Alexander Winterstein, a spokesman for the European Commission today was quoted by the Ansa news agency saying that the commission was "working hard to find a solution" to the migrant emergency and that Italy’s threat to not pay EU contributions would not lead anywhere.

PHOTO: Migrants aboard the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti gather on the deck as they await decisions in the port of Catania, Italy, Aug. 24 2018. Orietta Scardino/ANSA via AP
Migrants aboard the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti gather on the deck as they await decisions in the port of Catania, Italy, Aug. 24 2018.

Ulrike Demmer, spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said today that the EU must not leave Italy alone to cope with the Diciotti case. However, no country has come forward so far with offers to help. Hungary flatly refused Italy’s direct request yesterday and Belgium did the same today.

Reacting to the lack of an EU solution to the migrant predicament, Italian interior ministry sources quoted by the Ansa news agency, said today that it was the "umpteenth demonstration that Europe does not exist,” and reiterated that the interior ministry line will not change, and that no one would be getting off the ship.

The Italian government installed earlier this year insisted that Italy has had to take in a majority of mainly African migrants over the years – mostly rescued in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, announced early this summer that all foreign non-governmental ships rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya would not be allowed to dock in Italy, and would have to go elsewhere. Diplomatic disagreements between European countries followed almost immediately, while ships filled with migrants were forced to wait at sea for days in poor conditions.

PHOTO: Migrants disembark Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti in the port of Catania, Italy, June 13, 2018. Antonio Parrinello/Reuters, FILE
Migrants disembark Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti in the port of Catania, Italy, June 13, 2018.

The whole saga has become a highly politicized issue in the Italian media.

Prosecutors in the Sicilian cities of Catania, Agrigento and Palermo have started an investigation into the treatment of migrants on the Diciotti ship and their forced-onboard status.

Matteo Salvini, an opposition party senator from the Democratic Party, announced Friday that the Eritrean migrants had started a hunger strike. "#Diciotti migrants on hunger strike? Let them do what they see fit. In Italy there are five million people in absolute poverty (1.2 million children) that do hunger strikes every day," Salvini tweeted earlier today.

PHOTO: Italys Interior Minister Matteo Salvini looks on during a news conference in Rome, June 20, 2018. Stefano Rellandini/Reuters, FILE
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini looks on during a news conference in Rome, June 20, 2018.

Many Italian humanitarian organizations are urging the government to let the migrants disembark.

Twenty-seven minors were allowed to disembark from the Diciotti ship yesterday.

In an interview with the newspaper Corriere della Sera published today, Salvini repeated his refusal to let the migrants get off the ship. Asked how he saw this saga ending, Salvini is quoted saying: ‘With a lovely plane that arrives at Catania airport from a European capital. The Europeans will show their large hearts loading on all the aspiring refugees. We have already done our part with the minors.’’