Italy closing its ports to rescued migrants is driving up deaths at sea, an Italian think tank said, using calculations based on numbers collected by UN agencies.
Since taking power in June, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League party, has refused to allow charity rescue ships to dock in Italy, a policy with broad popular support after the arrival of almost 650,000 people from North Africa since 2014.
Arrivals are down 80% from last year, Salvini’s hard-line on immigration helped more than double support for his party since the March national election.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates of the number of dead or missing at sea suggest dire consequences to this policy, according to Matteo Villa, a researcher at Italy’s ISPI think tank.
In the four months since Salvini took power, the average number of deaths per day rose to eight, compared with 3.2 in the period between July 16, 2017 and May 31, 2018, when the previous government was in charge, his calculations show.
The death rate in September was 19%, so about one in five migrants who attempted to reach Italy from North Africa died. That’s the highest monthly death rate recorded since 2012, when reliable data began to be collected, Villa said.
“These data show there’s a problem,” Villa told Reuters, adding the lack of civilian ships at sea likely means recent estimates of dead are too low because there are no witnesses.
There currently are no civilian charity ships patrolling waters off of Libya after the latest stand-off on the high seas, which involved the Aquarius rescue vessel, ended.
In response to the report, a source close to Salvini told Reuters the minister’s objective is to stop departures altogether and the presence of charity ships caused people smugglers to send migrants on less safe boats.
“The objective is to bring real refugees to Europe by plane instead of these journeys of hope,” the source said.
“The presence of non-governmental groups close to the Libyan coast led smugglers to use smaller and less secure boats to cover a few miles hoping migrants are picked up by NGOs. In this way, the risk for migrants increased and traffickers increased profits,” the source said.
NGOs repeatedly denied helping or having any ties whatsoever to traffickers.
On Monday in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi repeated a call for more rescuers at sea.
“Rescue at sea – a marker of our shared humanity – has been taken hostage by politics,” Grandi said.