Migrant charity defies Italy over surveillance plane restrictions

FILE PHOTO: German NGO migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 patrols off the Libyan coast

ROME (Reuters) - A German rescue charity on Wednesday launched a fresh aerial surveillance mission from Italy to track down migrant boats in difficulty in the central Mediterranean, defying restrictions by Italian authorities.

The Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) this week said it was banning small planes used by migrant charities from airports on the islands of Sicily, Pantelleria and Lampedusa, which are the closest to sea migration routes.

The decision marked the latest Italian attempt to curb the activities of migrant aid groups, which have been accused by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's right-wing administration of attracting irregular migration.

"ENAC bans human rights monitoring over the Mediterranean. Aircraft belonging to NGOs are no longer allowed to fly. Our response: (our plane) Seabird took off today (from Lampedusa) shortly after 1 pm," the Sea-Watch charity wrote on X.

A spokesperson for ENAC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a written ordinance published on Monday, ENAC said the NGO planes were "unwarranted," represented a burden for official rescue teams, and risked compromising the safety of migrants.

Sea Watch on Tuesday called the move "an act of cowardice and cynicism by those who criminalize the NGOs for political propaganda" and said it still planned to take to the skies to help migrants in distress.

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the Italian decision "may hinder life-saving efforts", and added that his agency was "waiting to understand its actual implementation."

NGO spotter planes regularly find boats in distress and direct rescuers to their location. They have also documented aggressive pushbacks by Libyan coast guards, who receive European funding to prevent migrants from crossing the sea.

Meloni won office in 2022 promising to clamp down on migrant arrivals from Africa.

Since then, her government has made it increasingly difficult for charity ships to operate in the Mediterranean, limiting the number of rescues they can carry out and often forcing them to make huge detours to bring migrants ashore.

She has also worked with the European Union to persuade both Libya and Tunisia to slow the flows, and has signed an unprecedented deal with Albania to build migrant holding centres there.

The government says its measures are working and have reduced drownings during the dangerous crossings. So far this year, 17,666 boat migrants have reached Italy against 44,739 in the same period of 2023, official data shows.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, Alvise Armellini and Gianluca Semeraro, editing by Alexandra Hudson and Rosalba O'Brien)