Odyssey for refugees stuck on Italy ship goes on as EU talks fail

For the scores of refugees and migrants on board an Italian coastguard ship, the odyssey of their journey to Europe continues – despite reaching destination. 

Nine days ago, the Diciotti rescued dinghies in distress off the Maltese coast in the Mediterranean. After days of uncertainty at sea, the coastguard vessel was granted permission to dock in the Sicilian port of Catania on Monday.

Of the 177 people on board, only 29 unaccompanied children have been allowed so far by the Italian government to disembark.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister and co-deputy prime minister, announced earlier in the week he would allow people to leave the ship on the condition that other EU countries agreed to share responsibility for them. 

As a result, more than 150 people on board the Diciotti – mostly refugees from Eritrea – sleep on cardboard boxes while waiting for a resolution to the latest European migration standoff. 

All eyes on Friday were on an informal meeting of senior European leaders organised by the European Commission to discuss disembarkation amid threats by Italy to pull funding for the European Union unless member states agreed to take people from the Diciotti in.

But the talks ended without producing a solution for the stranded refugees and migrants, some of whom earlier on Friday reportedly started a hunger strike.

“This was not a meeting where decisions were taken”, a Commission spokesperson said in a statement. “It was a meeting that was organised by the Commission to harvest ideas and contributions to the on-going work to put in place a more predictable, sustainable and cooperative approach on disembarkation and responsibility sharing.”

After the meeting, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warned on Facebook that “Italy will act accordingly”.

“We once again take note of the discrepancy, which borders hypocrisy, between words and action,” he said. 

Matteo Villa, a migration research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Studies, told Al Jazeera that “no one expected anything different” from Friday’s talks.

“European countries decided it’s best to avoid expending a lot of political capital to face Italy’s threats.”

Twenty-nine unaccompanied children were allowed to disembark on the night of August 22 [Antonio Parrinello/Reuters]

Latest standoff

The Diciotti is the latest in a string of cases which saw Italy, as well as Malta, refuse or delay the disembarkation of people rescued in the Central Mediterranean, often after spending many months in detention in Libya. 

“Either Europe starts being serious defending its borders and relocating the immigrants, or we’ll start taking them back to the ports they left from,” Salvini threatened on a Facebook post.

Recent polls say that popular support for his anti-migration League party has been rising since the new government was installed in early June.

Salvini’s communication strategy hasn’t changed since becoming minister, revolving around Facebook live videos watched by tens of thousands of people.

Sometimes, his social media statements seemingly replace official announcements, too.

An Italian daily reported that the Diciotti’s captain, Massimo Kothmeir, received permission to dock from the transport ministry but only later learned from Salvini’s social media accounts that the rescued migrants were not to be allowed off the ship. 

Salvini’s migrant strategy has been condemned by human rights groups, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) calling for the migrants and refugees to be allowed disembarkation. 

“Keeping people hostage is not the right way to ask for more cooperation and solidarity,” Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW, told Al Jazeera. 

Probes opened

The United Nations and a host of Italian NGOs also called for the migrants to be let off the ship.

Italy’s independent guarantor of the rights of detained people warned that the country was breaching its own constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights by depriving people of their liberty without a court order. 

Sicily prosecutors have opened probes for kidnapping and abuse of office “against unknowns”. Salvini defiantly stated he is “waiting” to be arrested. 

Despite some internal dissent – notably from the President of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies Roberto Fico – Salvini is fully supported by the other party in the governing coalition, the Five Star Movement.

The leader of the Five Star Movement and co-deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio told reporters on Thursday that should no decision be reached in Friday’s meeting, Italy should stop paying into the EU budget. 

On Friday, he reiterated that he was “ready to reduce the funds that we give to the European Union” in a Facebook post. 

Italy, whose public debt amounts to 130 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), is expected to approve its 2019 budget in the coming weeks. 

Ad-hoc agreements

Since Italy adopted a hard stance on sea rescues, standoffs on disembarkation to Italian and Maltese ports have been resolved with ad-hoc agreements. 

In July, several European countries promised to relocate 270 out of more than 400 migrants and refugees that had arrived in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo. 

In the days following the deal, Conte said the EU was finally hearing Italy’s arguments on migration, accepting “the principle that immigration is a European challenge”. 

However, as Salvini himself has admitted, only France has so far kept its promise, relocating 47.

The others, who were supposed to depart to Germany, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Malta are presumed to be still waiting at Pozzallo. 

At a June summit, EU leaders agreed on a range of measures including the establishment of asylum “processing centres” both inside the EU and in transit countries. 

Arrivals down

Arrivals to Italy – and to Europe overall – more than halved in 2017 to just over 172,300. More than 3,000 people died or went missing in the same year.

In February 2017, the previous Italian administration signed a memorandum of understanding on migration with Libya’s Government of National Accord.

With EU approval, Italy began training and equipping Libya’s coastguard to perform rescues, “pulling back” migrant boats. 

While arrivals via the central Mediterranean route have continued to decrease, the western route from Morocco to Spain has seen a significant increase and currently records the highest numbers.

Still, the mortality rate has increased in the central Mediterranean. 

“The number of arrivals is very low compared with previous years,” Sunderland, of HRW, told Al Jazeera.

“We are talking about a manageable number. There’s no emergency, let alone an invasion. It is true that over the years the issue of the lack of equal distribution of asylum seekers within Europe has created divisions and tensions.

“At this stage, it has become the main obstacle to any kind of reasonable and rational policy on migration,” Sunderland said, adding that “there is certainly a need for a clear and long-term agreement among European countries to avoid this situation”. 

According to Carlo Ruzza, professor of political sociology at the University of Trento who studies populist movements and anti-populism, whether or not the strategy has achieved its own purpose is less important than the consensus it gathers. 

“Objectively nothing has changed much,” Ruzza told Al Jazeera.

“What is important is creating a sense of opposition towards an external enemy, the European Union, which makes us feel like a large community, reinforcing the idea we are persecuted and helping us trust a charismatic leader, the only one able to fight this enemy.”

“The problem is that [leaders] are not really dialoguing with Europe,” Ruzza concluded.

They are speaking with the Italian electorate.”

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