All 150 migrants have disembarked from an Italian coastguard ship that had been docked for five days in a Sicilian port, ending the migrants’ ordeal and a bitter stand-off between Rome’s anti-establishment government and its European Union partners.
The migrants, mainly from Eritrea, had been stranded in the port of Catania since Monday because the government refused to let them off the boat until other EU states agreed to take some of them in.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Albania had offered to accept 20 of the migrants and Ireland 20-25, while the rest would be housed by Italy’s Catholic Church “at zero cost” to the Italian taxpayer.
“The church has opened its heart and opened its wallet,” Salvini, from the right-wing League party, told supporters at a rally in Pinzolo in northern Italy on Saturday evening.
Salvini, who has led a popular crackdown against immigration since the government took office in June, also announced that he had been placed under investigation by a Sicilian prosecutor for abuse of office, kidnapping and illegal arrest.
“Being investigated for defending the rights of Italians is a disgrace,” he said.
On Saturday, the United Nations called for reason from all sides after a meeting of envoys from 10 EU states in Brussels a day earlier failed to break the deadlock.
“Frightened people who may be in need of international protection should not be caught in the maelstrom of politics,” the UN refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement.
The agency appealed to EU member states to “urgently” offer relocation places to the rescued people, in line with an agreement at an EU summit in June, and in the meantime, urged Italy to allow “the immediate disembarkation of those on board.”
Rome had refused to back down, despite criticism from rights groups and the opposition, with Salvini saying he considered the attacks he received to be a “badge of honour.”
The only help from within the bloc came late on Saturday from Ireland, whose offer to take in 20-25 migrants followed a pledge from non-EU member Albania to take in 20.
Italy’s Foreign Ministry called Albania’s offer “a signal of great solidarity and friendship that Italy greatly appreciates.”