Italy on Sunday allowed all 150 migrants from a NGO rescue ship to disembark after docking for five days at a Sicilian port - ending a standoff between Rome's populist coalition government and European Union partners, reports Reuters.
The migrants, mainly from Eritrea, had been stranded in the port of Catania since Monday because the government refused to let them off the boat until other EU states agreed to take some of them in.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Albania had offered to accept 20 of the migrants and Ireland 20-25, while the rest would be housed by Italy’s Catholic Church “at zero cost” to the Italian taxpayer. -Reuters
"The church has opened its heart and opened its wallet," said Salvini at a Saturday evening rally in the Northern Italian town of Pinzolo.
Salivini - who has spearheaded Italy's crackdown on illegal immigration beginning in June, also announced that he is currently under investigation by a Sicilian prosecutor for "abuse of office, kidnapping and illegal arrest."
“Being investigated for defending the rights of Italians is a disgrace,” he said.
The United Nations called for "reason from all sides" on Saturday following a meeting of envoys from 10 European Union member states, after the Friday meeting failed to break the deadlock.
“Frightened people who may be in need of international protection should not be caught in the maelstrom of politics,” the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement.
The agency appealed to EU member states to “urgently” offer relocation places to the rescued people, in line with an agreement at an EU summit in June, and in the meantime, urged Italy to allow “the immediate disembarkation of those on board.”
Rome had refused to back down, despite criticism from rights groups and the opposition, with Salvini saying he considered the attacks he received to be a “badge of honor.” -Reuters
At the end of the day, Albania, Ireland and the Catholic Church agreed to take the migrants, while Italy's Foreign Ministry called Albania's offer "a signal of great solidarity and friendship that Italy greatly appreciates."
On Friday - before Saturday's breakthrough, Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte attacked the EU over Facebook for its lack of support in taking the migrants, stating that Italy may refuse to back the bloc's long-term budget currently under discussion. He called Friday's meeting in Brussels a "defeat for Europe," and "a clear violation of the spirit of solidarity."
Before the breakthrough late on Saturday, thirteen migrants - seven women and six men - were ordered off the boat by doctors after a check-up carried out at around midday.
They finally left the boat one-by-one some six hours later, stepping down a flight of steps to touch dry land for the first time since leaving Libya at least 10 days ago. The 13 were taken by ambulance to Catania’s Garibaldi hospital.
Italian media reported that among them there were three cases of suspected tuberculosis and two of suspected pneumonia. Medical officials on the spot did not confirm this. -Reuters
The remaining 137 migrants were allowed to disembark early Sunday, after which they were to be taken to a reception center in the Sicilian city of Messina. From there, they will be "distributed to the Church dioceses as well as Ireland and Albania," according to Reuters.
27 unaccompanied minors and 13 people who needed medical treatment were allowed to leave the boat earlier this week. While docked for five days at Catania, the group of mostly young men on the NGO ship sheltered under a large green tarp that covered about half the deck.
About 200 left-wing protesters showed up at the port waving flags on Saturday, calling for the release of the migrants. The group later skirmished with police. In Rome, meanwhile, prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio interviewed several officials within the Interior Ministry as part of his criminal investigation over the treatment of migrants held against their will.
At that time, the investigation was said to be against “unknown persons”, but Salvini said he was responsible for his ministry’s actions, challenging the prosecutor to arrest him.
The 5-Star Movement, the League’s coalition partner, has so far backed Salvini’s hard line, and its Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who is responsible for the country’s ports, on Saturday renewed the government’s attacks on the EU. -Reuters
“Nobody can give lessons to Italy on its humanitarian efforts”, he said. “The government is only asking the EU give some sense to its own existence.”