ROME (Reuters) - Italy on Saturday demanded that the Netherlands recall two Dutch-flagged migrant rescue ships after one of the non-governmental organizations that operate them called Rome’s interior minister a fascist.
A heated exchange erupted after interior minister Matteo Salvini told more foreign NGOs operating migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean they could not dock in Italian ports.
Salvini, who is also leader of the right-wing League and deputy prime minister, posted remarks on Facebook and Twitter in an escalating row with NGOs as one ship, the Aquarius, headed to Spain after being banned from Italian ports.
Salvini has vowed to continue to block foreign humanitarian boats from Italian ports as Europe wrestles with how to share the responsibility of handling migrants trying to enter the EU from war zones and poor countries, largely across Africa and the Middle East.
Salvini, who has emerged as the most outspoken member of Italy’s two-week-old government, said on Facebook that two other foreign NGO ships, the Lifeline and the Seefuchs, were off the coast of Libya waiting to pick up migrants abandoned by human traffickers.
“They should know that Italy no longer wants to be an accomplice in the business of illegal immigration and therefore they will have to aim for other, non-Italian, ports,” Salvini said. Both ships fly Dutch flags.
Italy says humanitarian NGOs are being exploited by human traffickers, a charge the NGOs deny. Rome says only migrants rescued by Italian ships can be brought to Italian ports.
Following Salvini’s Facebook post, one of the NGOs, Mission Lifeline, tweeted in German “When fascists promote us ...”
An irritated Salvini tweeted back, saying “insults and threats will not stop us” and that Italians would run their own country.
Hours later, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said on Twitter that “Holland should make them come home”, saying the rescue missions were in violation of codes of conduct because they did not have adequate means or personnel and could endanger lives.
Mission Lifeline tweeted that they are “in full respect” of conduct codes.
The Dutch mission in Brussels said the ships were not on the Netherlands’ official register.
“But it does once again make poignantly clear this is an EU problem asking for an EU solution,” the Dutch mission said.
The Lifeline, when contacted by Reuters, said it was sailing under a Dutch flag and that it was not on the official Dutch register because it was a smaller ship.
The website marinetraffic.com listed both ships as being Dutch and both now off the coast of Libya.
The exchange of barbs took place a day after Italy and France tried to bury the hatchet following a diplomatic squabble over Rome’s refusal to accept the Aquarius.
The ship was off the coast of the Spanish island of Majorca on Saturday morning and was expected to arrive in Valencia on Sunday. It originally carried 629 migrants but some were later moved onto two Italian vessels escorting it to Spain.
Additional reporting by Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Ros Russell and Catherine Evans