The Italian government has declared its seaports “unsafe” due to the coronavirus pandemic, and will not authorise the landing of migrant rescue boats until the end of the emergency.
In a decree issued late on Tuesday, the government wrote that “for the entire duration of the health emergency, due to the outbreak of coronavirus, Italian ports cannot be classified as ‘safe places’ for the landing of people rescued from boats flying a foreign flag”.
The measure – the first of its kind in Italian history – appeared designed to prevent rescue boats from disembarking migrants in the upcoming weeks, as departures from Libya have increased in the last days with the arrival of good weather.
The decree, signed by interior minister Luciana Lamorgese, health minister Roberto Speranza and infrastructure minister Paola De Micheli, also suggests that rescued migrants might include people who have contracted Covid-19.
It adds that “rescued people must be guaranteed an absence of any threat to their lives”, and concludes that at this time the government cannot guarantee the security of migrants’ lives in Italy.
The government decree comes after the rescue boat Alan Kurdi, operated by the German NGO Sea-Eye, rescued about 150 people and is now located a few miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Alan Kurdi, named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in 2015, is currently the only NGO rescue boat operating in the central Mediterranean. The coronavirus outbreak has forced many charities to concentrate their aid efforts elsewhere.
Despite fears of the virus, migrants are still risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean: almost 800 people left Libya in March, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
In March, Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, said during a conference call to the EU’s foreign affairs council that the country was unable to open its ports to migrants. “It’s not about wanting to be good or bad,” said Di Maio. “Italy can’t just do it now.”
In 2018 the far-right former interior minister Matteo Salvini declared Italy’s ports “closed” to migrant rescue ships, arguing that migrants represented a threat to national security. Two years later, the Italian government has declared the country poses a threat to the migrants’ health due to the coronavirus.
Italy has been one of Europe’s worst-hit countries in the pandemic so far, with 135,586 coronavirus cases and 17,127 deaths.
“We respect the national fate of all European countries fighting against this pandemic and especially the situation facing Italy,” said Sea-Eye’s mission manager, Jan Ribbeck.
“No state in the Mediterranean should be left alone on the question of reception of refugees in the coronavirus crisis. We will address our flag state if it should become necessary.”
On Tuesday, Italy’s public broadcaster RAI reported a claim that the NGO has ‘‘already asked the German government to intervene by sending a plane to evacuate the 150 people on board”.
According to the NGO, at least 150 German cities are ready to welcome rescued migrants.