ROME (Reuters) - Hundreds of migrants finally disembarked in Italy from two ships on Monday after other European Union countries agreed to accept more than half of them, ending a diplomatic standoff that had left them stuck at sea.
The remaining migrants aboard the Italian ship Monte Sperone and the British naval vessel Protector, which had picked up 450 asylum seekers from an overcrowded boat that left Libya on Friday, shuffled ashore at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo.
At least eight suspected people smugglers were driven away in police cars, while identification procedures were begun in the port for the other migrants.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who had insisted that EU partners should take them in, said the offer by five countries to accept 50 migrants each had vindicated his hard-line immigration stance.
“Firmness and consistency pays off,” Salvini, who is leading a high-profile campaign to exclude humanitarian rescue ships from Italian ports, said late on Sunday.
Eight of the migrants in bad medical condition were allowed to land on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Saturday and another 27 women and children had disembarked in Pozzallo on Sunday.
“The next objective, to eradicate all the people-smuggling mafias, will be to re-accompany the immigrants back where they came from,” said Salvini, who leads the right-wing League.
He was speaking after Germany, France, Malta, Spain and Portugal each agreed to accept a share of the migrants that left the shores of Libya on Friday.
Salvini argues that European countries should find a way to block the migrants before they leave Africa or send boats with asylum seekers back to the ports where they came from, including to Libya’s harbors.
However, under international law, refugees cannot be returned to a place where their lives are in danger. Both the United Nations and EU have ruled that Libya is not safe.
Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister in the anti-establishment government that took office last month, insisted on Monday the rules must be changed to allow migrants to be returned to Libya and their asylum requests be processed there.
“The EU has to understand that this is the only way to get out of this tunnel,” he told reporters in Moscow, where he went to watch Sunday’s soccer World Cup final and meet Russian officials.
writing by Gavin Jones; editing by David Stamp