Tuesday

5th Mar 2024

Italy blocks refugee boat from Libya

  • Tunisian migrants in Lampedusa are searching for a better life (Photo: Antonio Amendola)

The Italian Ministry of the Interior has banned a ship believed to be carrying more than 1,800 people fleeing Libya from re-fuelling in Sicily, prompting the EU to call on Rome to make sure there are no refugees on board.

According to Italian authorities, the ship left the Libyan port of Misurata where deadly fighting between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces continues in order to repatriate a contingent of Moroccan workers. But "other, unidentified nationalities" are also onboard the "Mistral Express", a spokesman for the European Commission, Marcin Grabiec, said during a press conference on Tuesday (15 March).

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Following an order by the interior minister, the Sicilian port authorities denied the vessel permission to enter territorial waters and offered to refuel the ship at sea.

"We'll closely monitor the situation and recall member states to pay great attention and verify whether there are refugees on board and provide them with humanitarian assistance," Mr Grabiec said.

Italian media reported that aboard the Moroccan-owned ferry were 1,715 Moroccan nationals, 39 Libyans and 82 others from Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Syria, Sudan and Tunisia.

The stand-off with the Libyan ship is a first since the beginning of the anti-Gaddafi uprising last month.

Italy has in recent weeks been confronted with a sharp increase in migrants, particularly from Tunisia via the island of Lampedusa, a tiny piece of EU territory at just 113 km off the Tunisian coast.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported on Tuesday that 1,600 more Tunisians have landed on the island in the last 24 hours.

"This brings the total number of Tunisians having arrived in Italy since mid-January to just over 10,000," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said during a press conference in Geneva.

"From our interactions with Tunisians arriving in Italy over past few weeks, we believe that most are seeking employment and better economic opportunities, rather than international protection," she added.

The island has since become an attraction for far-right politicians campaigning against immigration to the EU. Freshly appointed leader of the French Front National party, Marine Le Pen, who is leading opinion polls ahead of presidential elections next year, was in Lampedusa on Monday to tell migrants not to come to Europe.

''I have a lot of compassion for you but Europe can't welcome you. We don't have the financial means,'' Le Pen told the Tunisians who had landed on the island.

Later on, during a press conference in Rome, she warned the Italian audience that if they "accept granting asylum rights to all economic refugees, I think that then Italy needs to prepare to accept half the world's population."

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