Italy’s new populist government will refuse to let a humanitarian boat carrying more than 600 refugees and migrants dock at any of its ports and has asked the tiny Mediterranean country of Malta to open its doors to the vessel, according to media reports.
Malta said it had nothing to do with the rescue operation, opening the prospect of a diplomatic standoff between the two European Union allies.
“From now also Italy begins to say NO to the traffic of human beings, NO to the business of illegal immigration,” Matteo Salvini, Italian interior minister and head of the far-right League party, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
“My goal is to guarantee a peaceful life for these children in Africa and for our children in Italy,” added Salvini, who is also a deputy prime minister after campaigning on a staunchly anti-immigrant platform, vowing to “put Italians first” and send hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants “home”.
More than 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. Numbers have dropped dramatically in recent months, but there has been a rise in rescues in recent days, presenting Salvini with his first test as minister.
Earlier on Sunday, the charity SOS Mediterranee on Twitter that its rescue ship, The Aquarius, had taken on board 629 refugees and migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women.
The charity said the group of mainly sub-Saharan Africans 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 Mediterranee tweeted on Sunday without specifying its destination, though virtually every such boat over the past five years has ended up in Italy.