FILE - In this June 12, 2018 file photo, an Italian Coast Guard boat approaches the French NGO "SOS Mediterranee" Aquarius ship as migrants are being transferred, in the Mediterranean Sea. As NATO allies convene, one issue not on their formal agenda but never far from their thoughts is immigration, even though illegal border crossings are decreasing on both sides of the Atlantic. The separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border and Italy’s refusal to let shipwrecked migrants disembark in its ports illustrate the hardening positions on border control in Washington and European capitals. (AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli, File)

Italy interior minister refuses port to migrant rescue ship

June 21, 2018 - 2:59 pm

MILAN (AP) — Italy's hard-line interior minister on Thursday refused port to a Dutch-flagged rescue boat with 224 migrants on board, a week after turning away another foreign ship, the Aquarius, carrying 630 migrants.

Matteo Salvini said the ship operated by the German aid group Mission Lifeline had loaded the migrants in Libyan waters after the Italian coast guard told it to leave the rescues to the Libyan coast guard. Salvini said he had contacted the Dutch ambassador about the ship's activities, adding that the migrants "will only see Italy on a postcard."

Mission Lifeline said it conducted the rescue in international waters and asked for a safe port, which had not been assigned, adding "'we are sailing northward." The ship's position Thursday night was not clear.

The aid group has rescued 675 migrants since 2016, until now handing them over to other ships to continue rescues at sea. This is the first time it is requesting a port.

"Mission Lifeline fears that a similar situation to the Aquarius ... could be on the horizon," the group said in a statement, adding that the additional days at sea had health consequences for some of the Aquarius passengers. "Therefore the NGO calls on the competent authorities to swiftly react to their obligation to designate a place of safety."

Spokesman Axel Steier said in an email that the condition of the migrants was "OK," but said migrants coming from Libya typically faced "torture, rapes, slavery." He said the passengers need protection and that the group is looking for a safe port "such as Lampedusa or Pozzallo," both in Sicily.

"We never were in Libyan waters!" he said.

Italy's transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, told the news agency ANSA after a Cabinet meeting late Thursday that the Lifeline remained in Libyan waters, according to Italian coast guard officials. He also said that the ship would be seized by Italian authorities if it arrived in Italy.

The Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, took the migrants to Spain, traveling an additional 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), after Italy and Malta refused to let them land.

Salvini has likened such rescue ships to taxi services that finish the job for migrant smugglers. He also has pointed out the failure of other European Union nations to take their share of migrants headed for Europe, a point that Italy will press in upcoming EU meetings. Salvini has threatened that Italy will withhold its payments to the EU if it doesn't get more help on the migrant issue.

Some 640,000 migrants have landed in Italy since 2014. The numbers are down dramatically this year, to some 14,500, more than 80 percent lower than in 2017.

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