In a move reminiscent of Australia’s contentious asylum seeker policy, Italy’s newly sworn-in, popularist government says it will refuse to allow a ship carrying more than 600 migrants to dock at its ports.
The decision by Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League party, represents an opening gambit to make good on his electoral promises to halt the flow of migrants into the country.
Days after assuming office, Mr Salvini issued a warning to people smugglers in a statement that drew direct comparisons with former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats” rhetoric.
“Every life is sacred. To save lives you have to stop the departures of these death boats, which is a lucrative business for some and a disgrace for the rest of the world,” he said last week.
Italy has called on Mediterranean neighbour, the island of Malta, to open its doors to the vessel.
“Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons,” Mr Salvini wrote on Facebook.
“From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration.”
Malta has brushed off the request, saying it had nothing to do with the rescue operation, opening the prospect of a diplomatic rift between the two European Union allies.
More than 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. Numbers have dropped dramatically in recent months, but rescues have increased in recent days, presenting Mr Salvini with his first test as minister.
“My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy,” he said, using the Twitter hashtag “We are shutting the ports”.
However, Mr Salvini does not have authority over the ports and it was not immediately clear if his edict would hold.
The mayor of Naples, who has repeatedly clashed with the League leader, said he would welcome in the humanitarian boat.
“Naples is ready, without funds, to save lives,” he said.
European charity SOS Mediterranee said on Twitter earlier that its rescue boat, Aquarius, had taken on board 629 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.
Malta said the rescue operations took place in international waters off Libya and were coordinated by Italy.
“Malta is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority in this case. Malta will observe prevailing laws,” its government said in a brief statement.
The United Nations estimates that at least 500 people have died in 2018 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, following some 2853 fatalities last year.