Emergency Italian decree targets migrant rescue ships

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Italy passed an emergency decree limiting entry of ships into its territorial waters, a move aimed at curbing the activity of migrant rescue boats operated by charities.

Cabinet approved the measure two weeks after the anti-immigrant League triumphed in European parliamentary elections, increasing the clout of its leader Matteo Salvini who campaigned hard on security and migration issues.

Under the decree, boats entering Italian waters in violation of international law or ignoring the orders of Italian authorities can be fined from 10,000 (8,905 pounds) to 50,000 euros. In the case of repeated violations, boats can be seized.

“I think we have approved a step forward for the security of this country,” Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Salvini told a news conference after the cabinet meeting.

The decree was watered down after President Sergio Mattarella and rights groups expressed alarm.

Draft versions, seen by Reuters, referred to boats bringing migrants to Italian ports, repeatedly closed to charity rescuers since Salvini took office a year ago. The final version makes no direct reference to migrant rescue boats.

Last month United Nations human rights experts wrote to Italy saying the draft decree was an attempt to criminalise search and rescue operations by humanitarian groups.

Salvini repeatedly accused charity rescuers of complicity with people smugglers and tightened migration rules in November, with a bill clamping down on asylum rights.

NGOs denied wrongdoing but most stopped operating in the Mediterranean due to Italy’s closure of its ports and repeated investigations by prosecutors.

The decision to close ports caused several stand-offs between Salvini and NGOs, but on June 7 the interior ministry allowed a cargo ship with more than 50 migrants on board to dock, after an Italian church said it would house them.

Migrant arrivals to Italy have plummeted since Salvini took office, with 2,144 crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, according to official data, down 85% on the same period in 2018 and down 96% on 2017.