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4th Dec 2021

EU ready to help Italy in NGO dispute

  • Italy wants other EU states to open their ports to NGOs (Photo: Frontex)

The European Commission said it is willing to help draft disembarkation guidance rules following threats from Italy to prevent NGOs offloading rescued migrants at its ports.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Thursday (29 June), EU commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said that it understood Italy's concerns and "supports their call for a change in the situation."

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But Bertaud added that any change in policy has to be discussed first with other member states and communicated to the NGOs.

A gathering of member state interior and justice ministers is scheduled for next week on Thursday and Friday in Estonia, where the issue is a priority.

"From our side, the commission is ready to help inform the discussions at the justice and home affairs [meetings] and to draft guidance on disembarkation, if that is needed," she said.

Italy's interior minister, Marco Minniti, who had skipped the last two ministerial meetings, is set to make an appeal among his counterparts for more solidarity.

On Thursday, Rome had threatened to impose the blockade on non-Italian NGOs following an upsurge in migrant and asylum hopeful arrivals from the north African coast since the beginning of the year. Thousands were rescued this week alone.

The Italian government wants other EU member states, such as Malta, France, or Spain, to open up their ports as a sign of solidarity.

Politics and law

But the measure is also part of a broader political wrangle at the EU level, after failed attempts to agree on key EU asylum laws and rules under the leadership of the outgoing Maltese Council of the EU presidency.

"The Italians are trying to offload the burden on unblocking the stalemate at EU level," said Giulia Lagana, a senior analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels.

Italian internal politics is also likely at play given the possible upcoming general elections.

Italy's prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is leading a centre-left government that is facing an increasingly acrimonious debate on migration from a broad right-wing opposition.

Local elections earlier this week saw the thrashing of the ruling Democratic Party (PD) by the centre-right coalition, which includes the populist Five Star Movement and the virulent anti-EU Lega Nord party.

Former PM Matteo Renzi, who leads the PD and is hoping to take back his seat as prime minister, had downplayed the results.

But Renzi is facing opposition from within his own ranks, with calls for him to resign. He now also appears to be stepping up the rhetoric against migrants.

However, any Italian plan to force NGOs to take rescued migrants elsewhere would likely violate international law.

The law requires a boat to take those rescued to the nearest safe port, now concentrated around Calabria and Sicily.

The host country must also be able to guarantee human rights, meaning they can't be offloaded in places such as Egypt or Tunisia.

The only other option would be Malta, given that Spain and France are too far away.

Earlier this month, Italy's interior under-secretary, Domenico Manzione, told MEPs that the Mediterranean has become the largest grave yard in Europe.

In this year alone, over 2,000 people have died so far in efforts to cross the Central Mediterranean.

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