Palermo mayor offers to open port to rescue vessel but may need coastguard cooperation
Mayors across the south of Italy have pledged to defy a move by the new Italian government an alliance of the far right and populists to prevent a rescue boat with 629 people on board from docking in the Sicilian capital.
But the mayors defiance appears unlikely to serve any practical purpose without the direct support of the Italian coastguard.
In the first evidence of the new governments hardline approach, the interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said on Sunday that all Italian ports were closed to the rescue boat, Aquarius.
The Maltese government rejected a request to take the boat, saying international law required that the migrants should be taken to Italian ports.
Salvini, the leader of the League, a far-right party, wrote on Facebook: Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration.
Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, said he was ready to open the citys seaport to allow the rescued migrants to safely disembark.
Palermo in ancient Greek meant complete port. We have always welcomed rescue boats and vessels who saved lives at sea. We will not stop now, Orlando said. Salvini is violating the international law. He has once again shown that we are under an extreme far-right government.
Other mayors in Italys south, including those in Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria, also said they were ready to disobey Salvinis order and allow Aquarius to dock and disembark in their seaports.
A representative of Doctors Without Borders said the mayors remarks were nice but not practical because it was standard practice to wait for the Italian coastguard, which is under the control of the Italian government, to allow a ship to dock.
More than 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years, and it is estimated as many as 500,000 are still in Italy. The arrivals were one cause of the electoral success of Salvinis League, formerly the Northern League, even though the previous government had overseen a big drop in the numbers coming from Libya over the past 12 months.
Salvini wrote: My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy, adding the slogan: We will shut the ports.
The humanitarian group SOS Mditerrane said on Twitter on Sunday that its rescue boat Aquarius had taken in 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women.
The charity said the migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, were picked up in six different rescue operations off the coast of Libya and included hundreds who were plucked from the sea by Italian naval units and then transferred to the Aquarius.
The boat is now heading north towards a secure port, SOS Mditerrane tweeted, without specifying its destination.
Salvini said the route took the boat past Malta, and the boat should dock in the capital, Valletta.
In a brief statement, Malta said the rescue operations took place in international waters off Libya that were part of a search and rescue area overseen by the rescue coordination centre in Rome.
Malta is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority in this case. Malta will observe prevailing laws, its government said in a brief statement.
An SOS Mditerrane spokeswoman, Mathilde Auvillain, said the Aquarius had received orders to head north after a series of sea rescues and was now awaiting definitive instructions.
Our objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the 629 people now on board the Aquarius some we rescued yesterday night in difficult conditions, she said.