ROME – On Tuesday, as new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni doubled down on her hardline anti-migrant policies, a rescue hotline sent an alert warning that boats carrying 1,300 people were in distress between the coasts of Italy and Malta.
According to the rescue hotline Alarm Phone, they were alerted around 8 a.m. yesterday, Oct. 25, that two separate migrant boats departed together from Libya, with one carrying around 700 people and the other 650.
In a tweet sent Tuesday morning, the hotline said “Reportedly, a person died and engines aren’t working anymore. A huge rescue operation is needed!”
A separate tweet said the hotline had spoken to someone on board, who reported that “the situation is extremely dangerous. People are suffering of serious dehydration and one person has reportedly gone over board. We fear for the lives of over 1300 people!!!”
The hotline, which continued to tweet about the boats throughout the day, said they alerted both Maltese and Italian authorities in the morning, yet as of 11:30 p.m., there had been no rescue.
Earlier in the evening, the hotline reported that “12 people have died or are unconscious and many suffer from dehydration. Both boats could sink at any moment. Both boats could sink at any moment.”
Hours later, they said both boats were still at sea, and at close to midnight, Alarm Phone said they spoke to people on board again “who are scared of drowning,” saying, “We alerted authorities over 15 hours ago, why have rescue operations not yet taken place?!”
Both Italy and Malta have long been on the frontline with migration into Europe, taking in tens of thousands of people a year who attempt to make the world’s deadliest crossing via the Mediterranean.
Meloni and her government, Italy’s most far-right since the Second World War, has taken a hardline anti-migrant policy, and has spoken of naval blockades preventing rescue ships from docking and creating “hotspots” in Africa to identify people the government deems to be truly in need of migrating.
In a policy statement Tuesday ahead of a confidence vote in her new government, Meloni touched on the migration issue, saying she and her government want to “pursue a path that has not been taken until today: stopping illegal departures, finally breaking up the trafficking of human beings in the Mediterranean.”
“If you don’t want us to talk about a naval blockade, I will say it like this: It is our intention to recover the original proposal of the European Union naval mission Sophia, which in the third phase foresaw, and was never implemented, the blocking of departures of boats from North Africa,” primarily from crisis-hit Libya, she said.
Meloni said her government intends to implement this policy in agreement with authorities in North Africa, and again spoke of hotspots, “where it is possible to evaluate requests for asylum and distinguish between who has the right to be accepted in Europe from those who do not have that right.”
She also insisted that it was time for traffickers to stop “being the ones who decide who gets in.”
Her new Interior Minister, Matteo Piantedosi, in a controversial move Tuesday said he might block charity ships from bringing rescued migrants to Italy, reviving a disputed policy from 2019.
Piantedosi’s directive was made in reference to two NGOs, the Norwegian Ocean Viking and German SOS Humanity rescue vessels. Ocean Viking yesterday sent a series of tweets saying they had rescued two boats in distress carrying 146 people total.
In response, Piantedosi dispatched his directive to the heads of the Police Forces and the Harbor Master’s Office informing them that the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through a formal diplomatic warning to the two embassies of the flag states of the NGOs, Germany and Norway, had found the NGO’s activities were “not in line with the spirit of European and Italian norms on security and border control in the fight against illegal immigration.”
Piantedosi said that in his capacity as National Public Security Authority, he would assess the NGOs’ conduct according to Article 19 of the United Nations’ International Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying the passage of two ships into territorial waters could be considered prejudicial to peace and coastal security, and that he would consider adopting a ban on entry into territorial waters.
On Wednesday Alarm Phone dispatched another tweet stating that the 1,300 migrants in distress were finally rescued by the Italians “After long operations carried out” throughout the night. According to the hotline, the boats were “some of the largest” they had ever assisted, “and we are very relieved they were rescued.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Italy’s Senate is set to hold a debate on Meloni’s policy statement. She will then deliver a speech, and afterwards a vote of confidence in her government will take place.
While Meloni’s government won a vote of confidence Tuesday from Italy’s lower house of Parliament, with 235 votes in favor, 154 against and 5 abstentions, the possible deaths of 1300 people at sea within the first days of her administration could challenge faith in her hardline policies.
Her handling of the situation and the fate of those involved is the first major test she faces on the migration front, and the outcome could have a significant impact on her immigration policy going forward.
In remarks Tuesday, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna and head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), said the Mediterranean “must be a hinge, not a wall,” and insisted that “a change of perspective is needed to address the issue of migration in terms of humanity, not security.”
He spoke during the “Cry for Peace” event organized by the Sant’Egidio Community, which drew participation from top Christian and interfaith leaders around the world, as well as from top civil leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
In his remarks, Zuppi said responding to the cry of “save me” that comes from so many in the Mediterranean is not only the responsibility of the countries that border the sea, “but of all of Europe.”
“We must all free ourselves from the temptation to react with fear, because the migrant problem is not just a problem of security, but of vision: if we continue to accept the inequalities between the north and south shores, resentments will accumulate, and the mare nostrum (our sea) will become mare monsum (mountain sea).”
Echoing Zuppi’s remarks, Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, archbishop of Marseille, also weighed in on the migrant issue, chastising the European Union, which he said, “finances the Libyan mafia in the silence and indifference of the world.”
Aveline called on Mediterranean countries to a common sense of responsibility, saying, “we must resist the political sirens that try to numb us with fear and make us believe that immigration is just a threat.”
This article has been updated with rescue information on the 1,300 migrants in distress.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen