Italy impounds three rescue ships as migrant numbers soar

FILE PHOTO: Migrants on board Open Arms rescue boat arrive at Messina port

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Italy impounded a rescue ship operated by a German NGO on Wednesday, the third charity boat sequestered this week under tough new migration rules introduced by the country's right-wing government.

The temporary seizure of the three vessels, all held at port after completing rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, comes as migrant arrivals to Italy continued to soar despite efforts by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to halt the flow.

Germany's Sea Eye 4 boat was detained after bringing 114 migrants to the southern port of Salerno, and told it could not put to sea for 20 days. It was also fined almost 3,000 euros ($3,240), the Sea Eye group said in a statement.

It was the second time the boat has been impounded this year.

A second charity ship, Aurora, operated by Germany's Sea Watch, was seized on Monday after bringing 76 migrants to the island of Lampedusa, while the Spanish rescue vessel Open Arms was impounded on Tuesday in the Tuscan port of Carrara after rescuing 195 people.

"(This) is a politically motivated attack on humanitarian action, and one that will cost lives," said Arnaud Banos, head of mission on Sea-Eye 4.

There was no immediate comment from the Italian Coast Guard.

A law approved by Italy's parliament in February requires charity-run ships to sail to port immediately after a rescue, preventing them from organising multiple operations at sea.

Both Sea-Eye and Open Arms carried out three separate rescues before heading to the ports assigned to them by Italy, saying that migrants would have died without their intervention.

Italian authorities are also instructing ships to head to more distant ports, in some cases hundreds of kilometres away.

The Aurora was sequestered after it refused orders to sail to Sicily and instead docked at Lampedusa, which was much closer, saying it was running out of fuel and drinking water.

"We denounce Italy's cruel political chess game, focused on violently preventing migration and impeding civil sea rescue," said Giulia Messmer, spokesperson of Sea-Watch.

Both Sea-Watch and Open Arms also face fines of up to 10,000 euros after running foul of the Italian regulations.

Meloni said in December that the clampdown on charity ships was needed to stop them from acting as "ferry boats" for migrants, going "back and forth with human traffickers to shuttle people from one country to the other".

Despite the restrictions, the number of migrants arriving by boat has soared this year, reaching 105,483 by Aug. 22, according to latest Interior Ministry data, more than double the same period in 2022.

However, many migrants failed to make it. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 2,000 people have drowned in the central Mediterranean so far in 2023 compared with 1,417 for all of 2022.

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(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Gavin Jones and Christina Fincher)