Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée (SOS Med) have denounced that at least 1,151 refugee seekers, including children, have died and more than 10,000 forcibly deported to Libya since the Italian government closed its ports to humanitarian ships arriving to Europe from across the Mediterranean Sea.
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"European governments' response to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea and Libya has been a race to the bottom," Annemarie Loof, MSF head of rescue operations, said adding, "we are intervening to end the dehumanizing policies against vulnerable people at sea."
In June 2018, Italy's Matteo Salvini, who is both Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister along with being leader of the far-right Five Stars Movement (M5S), announced the government's "closed ports" policy to prevent some 630 Africans from landing on Italian shores in a rescue boat, Aquarius.
Just Wednesday, Salvini threatened take measures against Sea Watch, a German charity ship that had picked up 52 migrants off Libya's coast.
"This is the umpteenth time Sea Watch, which is a real pirate ship, has done something like this," said Salvini, a nationalist politician whose government approved Tuesday a decree allowing the official the power to deny vessels access to Italian territorial waters if they pose "a risk to security or public order," according to the executive order.
Although humanitarian rescue ships were not explicitly mentioned, any boat failing to respect the orders could face fines of up to US$56,500.
"We won't stop defending human life at sea," said Sea Watch, which works to transfer refugees from the sea to European ports arguing that Libya, where the asylum seekers generally leave from on small rubber boats, is too dangerous for them.
Despite the evidence supporting humanitarian actions, Salvini accused the ship of defying maritime law and commented: "We cannot wait to use" the new decree against Sea Watch.
"Libyan authorities have officially assigned Tripoli as the nearest port for the landing," announced Salvini, which would send the refugees back to the country where they are at high risk of being sold into slavery. "If they disobey they will pay in full," added the double minister.
Italian police seized the Sea Watch boat last month accusing it of breaching immigration rules. However, the ship was eventually released some week ago and returned to operation.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed to the Italian government Wednesday to revise its new measure.
"Sea rescue is a long-standing humanitarian imperative. It is also an obligation under international law," a UNHCR statement said, and added that "no vessel or shipmaster should be at risk of a fine for coming to the aid of boats in distress and where loss of life may be imminent," said the organization.
"Saving lives is not a crime. ... Instead of working together with other European states to create a proactive and adequate search and rescue system, the Italian government criminalises sea rescue," said MSF Italy President Claudia Lodesani.
The Italian government called this criticism "inadequate and surprisingly narrow-minded," reported local media.