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Italy says dozens of migrants stuck on a ship near its coast aren't welcome

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Italy's new right-wing government is taking a harder line on the NGOs that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Migrants from Africa and Asia who are trying to get to Europe. Italy is blocking men from leaving the ships, and that has prompted at least one standoff at a Sicilian port.

MARTIN: We're joined now by NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. She has been following all this. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about the situation at the ports right now?

POGGIOLI: Well, the worst is Catania in Sicily, where the rescue ship Humanity 1, which flies a German flag, was finally allowed to dock over the weekend. Of the original 179 migrants rescued, 35, all males, remain on board. They're from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt. The head of operations of the charity SOS Humanity, Till Rummenhohl, is on board and describes the situation.

TILL RUMMENHOHL: We see frustration. We see them getting more and more depressed. People are having problems to eat properly because they don't understand the situation. They have so much uncertainty about their future. They are afraid of being pushed back into international waters by Italian authorities.

POGGIOLI: And that's what the Italian government is threatening.

MARTIN: How many ships are trying to dock now with how many migrants?

POGGIOLI: Another NGO ship, the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents, was allowed to disembark some 500 migrants, leaving around 250 on board. The government is applying selective entry, insisting it's acting humanely but firmly. But the ship's captains refuse to leave Catania Port, insisting the remaining migrants must be allowed to land and be allowed to apply for asylum. SOS Humanity is filing legal actions, with two Italian courts appealing the government's selective methods.

MARTIN: So explain, Sylvia. You said that dozens of men are being kept on on one of these ships, but lots of people have been let go. What are the criteria to determine who gets to get off the boat and who has to stay?

POGGIOLI: Italy is allowing women and children and ill people to disembark. A team of doctors is sent on board to determine who's ill. Now there's a third ship, a German-flagged Mission Lifeline. With 89 migrants on board, it was allowed to dock at Reggio Calabria on the toe of the Italian boot. And though all 89 migrants were allowed to leave the ship, the Italian authorities say that migrant rescue took place in a section of the sea that's under Italian jurisdiction, as determined by some international convention, while the other two ships rescued migrants in waters not under Italian jurisdiction.

MARTIN: Is this a different position for the Italian government when it comes to migration?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's - the new Italian government is just installed two weeks ago. It's a far-right coalition, and it wants to send a message to irregular migrants. It claims migrants should seek asylum in the countries under whose flags the rescue ship sailed. In this case, it would be Norway and Germany. The government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has accused the charity Rescue ships of acting as a de facto taxi service for the many migrants from Africa and Asia trying to reach Europe and therefore allegedly encouraging human trafficking, although the U.N. has said that NGO rescues account for only 15% of migrants who arrive in Italy. But the deputy justice minister says Italy will no longer be migrants' punching bag. And here's what Lucio Malan, an MP from Meloni's Brothers of Italy Party, said Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCIO MALAN: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: He said Ukraine migrants are women and children. African migrants are young males who shouldn't abandon their women and children. And then they staged these organized shipwrecks, he said, as if they were victims of the Titanic. Now, the government has threatened the boats with $50,000 fines if they don't leave the port of Catania. But the U.N. agencies for migration and refugees, as well as European Union officials, have called on Italy to allow all the migrants to be disembarked without delay.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.