December 19, 2018

Italy Orders Seizure of Migrant Rescue Ship

ROME — Italy has ordered the seizure of the Aquarius, the rescue ship at the center of international criticism over its government’s hard line against migration, saying the vessel had illegally disposed of potentially infectious waste.

Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania announced on Tuesday that they had accused 24 people of having “systematically shared, planned and executed an illegal waste-disposal project of an enormous quantity” in southern Italian ports between January 2017 and May 2018. They said the waste included contaminated garments, leftover food, and medical supplies and syringes.

Those accused included members of Doctors Without Borders, one of the aid groups operating the Aquarius, and officials of a Sicilian company that manages waste disposal. According to a statement by the prosecutors’ office, the Aquarius and VOS Prudence, another rescue ship operated by Doctors Without Borders, illegally coordinated with the Sicilian company, which failed to declare the “presence of dangerous sanitary waste with an infectious risk.”

Doctors Without Borders denied the accusation in a statement on Tuesday, writing that it “strongly condemns” the Italian order to seize the Aquarius. It called the measure a disproportionate reaction designed to criminalize humanitarian and medical missions at sea. The group said it would appeal in Italian court.

The ship is already idled, sitting in a French port since September because no country has agreed to register it. The Italian order means that if it were to resume operation, it could not enter Italian waters without risk of being impounded.

In Italy, the Aquarius has become the symbol of a confrontation between rescue ships, which have saved tens of thousands of shipwrecked migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and government officials who have compared the ships to migrant water-taxis and say they are complicit in human smuggling.

In June, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s hard-line interior minister and leader of the anti-immigrant League party, refused to let the Aquarius land at a time when it had more than 629 migrants aboard, including 123 minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women. The move set off a confrontation with the European Union that only increased Mr. Salvini’s popularity at home. (Spain eventually took in the migrants.)

On Tuesday, the minister celebrated the order against the Aquarius, and his own actions against nongovernmental organizations that rescue people at sea.

“I did well to block the N.G.O. ships, I stopped not only the smuggling of illegal immigrants but, from that which emerges, also toxic waste,” he wrote on Twitter. He concluded with the hashtag “closedports.”

“The only crime we see in the Mediterranean today is the total dismantlement of the search-and-rescue system,” said Gabriele Eminente, the general director of Doctors Without Borders in Italy.

“Today,” he said, political pressure had led the Aquarius to be “blocked in the port of Marseille.”

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