Italian PM gathers ministers at recent shipwreck site as EU meets on migrants once again

Refugees in a boat off the Italian coast as more have died coming from Libya
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Far-right Italian PM Giorgia Meloni gathered her ministers on 9 March for a meeting near the site of a recent fatal shipwreck. At least 72 people died when their overcrowded boat sank in stormy weather just off the coast of Calabria on February 26. Many of these people were children.

Protesters accused Meloni’s right-wing government of risking lives with its hard line on migration. Ahead of the cabinet’s afternoon meeting in Cutro, several dozen protesters surrounded by riot police gathered in the town centre. They yelled “Step down, assassins!”

Protestor Antonio Viterutti told Agence France-Presse (AFP) the visit by Meloni was an attempt to deflect attention from criticism. He said:

I want to denounce the hypocrisy of the Italian government that leaves a boatload of people fleeing hunger, war and misery to die at sea and comes here today to do a political stunt…

Local resident Maria Panebianco said:

I hold them in my heart — all these children, these women who came to find peace and instead found death. It pains me. It pains me a lot.

Returning the dead

The interior ministry said it has begun the process of sending back the bodies of migrants to their home countries. This includes a planned operation to return 16 bodies to Afghanistan. The body of one Afghan migrant was buried at the Crotone cemetery this week. Meanwhile, the bodies of seven others were transferred to the Muslim cemetery in Bologna.

Read on...

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Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party won elections last year on a pledge to curb sea arrivals. Her governing coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini’s far-right League, has clamped down on charity rescue boats. The government’s policy of treating migrant boats in the Central Mediterranean as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one, may have fatally delayed the rescue last month.

Furthermore, Meloni and interior minister Matteo Piantedosi have rejected accusations that they failed to intervene to save the boat. It set off from Turkey and was carrying Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Syrian nationals.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the disaster. It occurred despite European Union border agency Frontex saying it had alerted Italian authorities to the heavily overcrowded boat.

‘Not warned’

Piantedosi told his parliament on 7 March that Frontex had not said the boat was in any danger. However, he was fiercely criticised for blaming the victims for trusting their lives to traffickers.

But opposition leaders insist the coastguard is supposed to rescue all vessels. Those carrying migrants and run by human traffickers are inevitably dangerously overcrowded and ill-equipped.

They have also asked why a rescue operation was not launched once police boats that had been sent out to meet the vessel were forced to turn back in increasingly rough seas.

A member of parliament who visited some of the 80 survivors told La Repubblica Daily that they had been kept in poor conditions. They were without even enough beds or special provisions for families and minors.

Unabashed, Meloni has called for the EU to further bolster efforts to tackle the issue. She says that it penalises Italy. The country records tens of thousands of arrivals by sea yearly, mainly from North Africa.

EU response

Meanwhile, EU ministers met on 9 March to wrangle once again over who should take responsibility for migrants arriving in Europe. Last year, asylum claims in the EU reached a level not seen since the 2015-2016 refugee crisis. In turn, this ramped up long-standing tensions between member states.

Countries with Mediterranean coasts used for arrivals from Africa and the Middle East, such as Italy and Greece, are demanding other states take in more migrants.

The subject was expected to dominate a meeting of interior ministers in Brussels. Currently, the bloc is making a fresh push this year to reform the asylum system.

Ahead of the talks, several ministers urged Italy to respect the so-called ‘Dublin Regulations’. Under this, irregular migrants should be registered in the EU country where they first enter.

Bloc strains

Swiss Justice Minister Elisabeth Baume-Schneider urged the Italian government to respect the rules. Switzerland is not an EU member but is a part of the Dublin rules. Baume-Schneider insisted:

I am not the only one to say that we need to maintain dialogue with Italy and ask Italy to honour the Dublin pact.

Germany’s interior minister Nancy Faeser blamed “those states that do not want to re-admit” asylum seekers for the dispute. She said:

I will try to make sure that states are aware of their responsibility. It is the law, they are obliged to readmit. I will remind them very strongly today.

France, Germany, and Switzerland signed a joint statement on 8 March with Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands. It expressed their concern over asylum seekers coming to their countries from the EU countries in which they first arrived.

They called for the existing rules to be respected and “reaffirmed their commitment to structurally reform” the Dublin Regulations.

The ministers in January wanted to focus on how to speed up the process of returning undocumented migrants to their country of origin in cases where their asylum bid fails.

The Canary’s Alex/Rose Cocker argued:

As the climate crisis and wars continue to create refugees desperately fleeing their homes, attempted crossings will keep taking place. However, increasingly far-right governments are more invested in ‘tough on immigration’ posturing than saving human lives. More than this, as Meloni has shown, they are criminalising civilian rescue efforts that plug the gaps left by governments.

The lives of (overwhelmingly Black and brown) refugees hold no value at European borders. It is therefore imperative that we stand together to speak out against the callous disregard for human life shown by European governments.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

Featured image via Youtube screengrab

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