The Italian coastguard impounded two charity rescue boats at Palermo port citing “technical and operational” irregularities, which the owners denounc as an excuse to block life-saving missions.
The seizure of the German-flagged Alan Kurdi and Spanish-flagged Aita Mari followed a rise in migrants reaching Italy, which angered and embarrassed government as it battles the coronavirus epidemic.
Italy was a prime route to Europe for thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants, but numbers fell sharply because of a crackdown in Libya against smugglers. There has been an increase this year.
Charities rescuing migrants at sea accuse Italian authorities of interfering with operations, increasing the risk to human life. Italy says NGO boats make the problem worse by tempting people to make the perilous voyage.
The Alan Kurdi, which picked up 150 migrants off Libya last month and brought them to Italy, was impounded on Tuesday. The Aita Mari, which brought 34 people to Sicily, was sequestrated on Wednesday.
The coastguard said in a statement work would be needed on both boats before they could return to sea, adding the respective flag countries would have to intervene because they were responsible for compliance with ship safety.
The German group Sea-Eye, which operates the Alan Kurdi, denounced the seizure as “grotesque”, saying the boat recently returned from a five week refit.
“Detaining our ship is harassment aimed at grinding civil sea rescue efforts to a halt bit by bit,” said Sea-Eye spokesman Julian Pahlke.
Italy and nearby Malta closed ports to migrant boats, saying they cannot help because of the coronavirus crisis. Almost 30 000 people died in Italy of COVID-19 and five people died in Malta.
Despite the closures, migrants continue arriving, with 4 069 reaching Italy so far this year, compared with 842 in the same period in 2019, the Interior Ministry said.
Malta chartered a second tourist boat for newly rescued migrants offshore. A first boat was chartered last month for 57 migrants outside Malta territorial waters until the EU could house them. A deal has not yet been reached.
“In our migrant centres we have 4 000 migrants and no room for more,” said Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo.
The rise in arrivals comes when Italy is considering work permits for irregular migrants to help harvest agriciltural crops, drawing the ire of the far-right League party – Italy’s most popular party.
“Clearly, if you’re talking amnesties, regularisations and permits, the message we give to the other side of the Mediterranean is: ‘Go, go, go, sooner or later they will sort you out’,” League leader Matteo Salvini said.