Italy impounds migrant rescue ships; charities claim harassment

ROME, May 7 (Reuters) - Italian coastguards have seized two charity rescue boats at the port of Palermo citing “technical and operational” irregularities, which the owners called an excuse to hinder missions to save the lives of migrants at sea.

The seizure of the German-flagged Alan Kurdi and Spanish-flagged Aita Mari this week followed a sharp rise in the number of migrants reaching Italy, which has angered and embarrassed the government as it battles the coronavirus epidemic.

For years Italy was the primary route into Europe for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and other irregular migrants. The numbers making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean fell sharply in recent years because of a crackdown in Libya against smugglers, but rose again this year.

Charities that rescue migrants at sea have accused the Italian authorities of interfering with their operations, increasing the risk to human life. Italy says some charities make the problem worse by tempting people to make the voyage.

The Alan Kurdi, which picked up 150 migrants off the Libyan coast last month and brought them to Italy, was impounded on Tuesday. The Aita Mari, which had brought 34 people to Sicily, was sequestrated on Wednesday.

The coastguard said in a statement that work would be needed on both boats before they could return to sea, adding that the respective flag-countries would have to intervene because they were responsible for compliance with ship safety. No further details were immediately available.

The German group Sea-Eye, which operates the Alan Kurdi, denounced the seizure as “grotesque”, saying the boat had just returned from the a five-week refit.

“Detaining our ship is pure harassment (aimed at) grinding civil sea rescue efforts to a halt bit-by-bit,” said Sea-Eye spokesman Julian Pahlke.

The group had announced on Monday that it was planning to return to the central Mediterranean after completing a 16-day obligatory quarantine off Palermo, imposed when it brought its rescued migrants to Italian waters.

“(The) only goal is to actively stop us from rescues at sea,” said Pahlke.

Both Italy and nearby Malta have closed their ports to migrant boats, saying they cannot help them because of the coronavirus crisis. Almost 30,000 people have died in Italy of the COVID-19 disease, while five people have died in Malta.

Despite the port closures, migrants have continued to arrive, thanks partly to the Alan Kurdi and Aita Mari, but also thanks to small fishing vessels making the crossing from north Africa under their own steam.

Some 4,069 boat migrants have reached in Italy so far this year, compared with 842 in the same period in 2019, the Interior Ministry says. A total 604 migrants arrived in the first 6 days of May compared with 59 a year ago.

The uptick in arrivals comes at a time when the government is considering giving work permits to thousands of irregular migrants to help farms harvest their crops, drawing the ire of the far-right League party -- Italy’s most popular party.

“Clearly, if you’re talking about amnesties, regularisations and permits, the message that we give to the other side of the Mediterranean is: ‘Go, go, go, sooner or later they will sort you out’,” League leader Matteo Salvini said on Thursday. (Additional reporting by Wladimiro Pantaleone Editing by Peter Graff)