Italian bishops decry ‘selective acceptance’ in Italy’s migration standoff

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent
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ROME – As a standoff between a humanitarian migrant rescue ship and the Italian government continues into its fourth day, a leading Italian bishop has criticized the “selective” process of allowing some migrants to disembark, while turning others away.

Speaking at the opening of the World Report of the Migrantes Foundation, Bishop Francesco Savino of Cassano all’Jonio, Italy and vice president of the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), said, certain words tossed around in the current migration debate “are worrying me.”

“I am afraid and my conscience is troubled when I hear about ‘selective acceptance.’ I don’t know what this adjective means,” he said, adding, “How worried I am when I hear that these immigrants or some of these immigrants are ‘residual burdens.’”

“Here, in my opinion, the civilization of globalization, here mature democracy at the European level is at stake,” he said.

Savino’s words come as the Italian government is in the midst of a standoff with a German NGO over its refusal to let certain rescued migrants at sea come ashore.

Italy is among the main entry points for migrants seeking entry into Europe. According to the United Nations, some 85,000 migrants have arrived on boats since the beginning of this year, most of whom departed from Libya in small boats.

Many migrants face torture and various forms of abuse, promoting them to make the risky voyage across the Mediterranean in search of a better life.

Over the weekend, German NGO SOS Humanity rescued some 179 people in distress at sea on its Humanity 1 boat, which on Saturday evening was instructed to dock at the Sicilian port of Catania. Upon arrival, a medical examination of the passengers was conducted and afterward, 144 of the passengers were allowed to go ashore, while 36 were deemed healthy and ordered to stay on board.

The Humanity 1 rescue ship was then ordered Sunday to leave territorial waters along with the 35 remaining survivors. Its captain refused, citing maritime law as requiring all rescued peoples be disembarked in a safe place.

As of Tuesday evening, Humanity 1 was still docked at the Catania port, and, according to SOS Humanity, the 35 remaining migrants on board were on a hunger strike, which they have been conducting for two days.

In a statement, SOS Humanity said newly installed Ministers Italian Ministers of Interior Matteo Piantedosi, Defense Guido Crosetti, and Infrastructure and Mobility Matteo Salvini, signed the decree allowing the rescue ship to enter the Sicilian port only after 13 days at sea.

The decree, the organization said, prohibits the ship from remaining in Italian waters for longer than is “necessary for rescue and assistance operations for people in emergency conditions and in precarious health conditions.”

However, given that no “place of safety” was designated for the 35 rescued migrants who remain on board, as required by maritime law, the captain has dug in his heels and is still refusing to leave until the remaining 35 migrants are either allowed to go ashore, or are welcomed elsewhere.

The selection process for who was allowed to go ashore, the organization said, “took place under arbitrary and inadequate conditions,” noting that originally 36 survivors were ordered to stay on board, however, after being told they were not allowed to disembark, one collapsed and lost consciousness, and had to be taken away by an ambulance, leaving 35 still on board.

Mirka Schäfer, an advocacy officer for SOS Humanity, said that “Both the decree and the prevention of the disembarkation of 35 survivors from Humanity 1 violate international and Italian law.”

As such, SOS Humanity has decided to take legal action, and is appeal to the Administrative Regional Tribunal in Rome against the decree.

“Under international law, a search and rescue operation is concluded with the disembarkation of the survivors in a place of safety,” Schäfer said. “It is unlawful to only allow a selected few of the survivors to disembark.”

“Furthermore, to reject all the others outside the national territorial waters constitutes a form of collective refoulement and thus violates both the European Convention on Human Rights and the non-refoulement principle of the Geneva Refugee Convention,” Schäfer said.

SOS Humanity also announced that it was initiating a fast-track proceeding before the civil court in Catania to ensure that the right of the migrants on board Humanity 1 to access a formal asylum procedure on land is guaranteed as a matter of urgency.

At the same time SOS Humanity’s ship was seeking a place to dock, three other ships carrying around 900 more rescued asylum seekers remained at sea, two in Italian waters and one in international waters, with their requests for a safe port going unanswered despite reports of “critical” conditions onboard.

According to the NGOs that rescued the migrants, people were sleeping on floors and decks, with fever and infections spreading while medical supplies were nearing depletion. Some of the rescued migrants have been on ships for over two weeks waiting for a safe place to disembark.

The standoff with SOS Humanity and the other rescue ships marks one of the first major tests for the government of new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has taken a hardline against migration, pledging a naval blockade of all ships carrying migrants coming from Libya and establishing a pre-departure vetting process to determine which migrants have a right to enter Europe.

However, some have criticized Meloni’s firm hand against the NGOs, noting that in the time in which the nearly 1,000 migrants on board the ships were rescued, from around Oct. 20 until now, far more people have been rescued by Italian government assets.

According to statistics from UNHCR and the Italian Ministry of the Interior, more than 11,000 people have been allowed to enter the country in that timeframe, either arriving near the Italian island of Lampedusa and being picked up by merchant vessels, or through rescue by the Italian Coast Guard or other military vessels.

Critics argue that Meloni’s hardline against humanitarian NGOs is undermined given that the government has rescued around ten times more people in the same time span, all of whom were given the right to disembark.

In the days since the standoff with SOS Humanity went public, both humanitarian groups and Italian politicians have traveled to Sicily to protest.

In a tweet about the situation, Italian politician Aboubakar Soumahoro, the only person of color in the lower chamber of Italian parliament, said that “Right now, in the port of Catania there is a selective disembarkation under way.”

“Worn bodies of castaways already exhausted by cold, fatigue, trauma and torture are considered objects by Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni,” Soumahoro said, asking Meloni to “Free all the people, free them″ and calling the government’s new policy “inhuman.”

In his remarks, Savino pointed to the many Italians who migrate either from the country’s north to other parts of Italy, or who migrate abroad, saying, “there are other brothers and sisters who are experiencing the same migratory phenomenon that is coming from Africa to this country.”

“Obviously if we ask, for our Italians, for an attitude of welcome, tolerance, accompaniment and integration wherever the Italian insurgents are, I also think that we must use the same vocabulary for the immigrant brothers and sisters who come to Italy,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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