Italy threatens to return migrants to Libya in new standoff

MigrantsItaly’s firebrand interior minister threatened Sunday to return to Libya 177 migrants who have been aboard an Italian coast guard ship for days following another standoff with Malta.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanded that other European countries take in the migrants after his Maltese counterpart, Michael Farrugia, insisted that the “only solution” is for the Diciotti ship to dock at the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The Diciotti, working under the EU’s Frontex Mediterranean rescue operation, has been off Lampedusa after rescuing the migrants Aug. 16. Italy asked Malta to take them in, but Malta refused, saying the migrant boat wasn’t in distress and that the migrants declined Maltese assistance, preferring to continue toward Italy.

In a tweet Sunday, Farrugia accused Italy of rescuing the migrants in Maltese waters “purely to prevent them from entering Italian waters.”

Salvini, who has refused to allow aid groups to dock in Italy, shot back: “Or Europe decides to help Italy concretely, starting with the 180-odd migrants aboard the Diciotti, or we’ll be forced to do what will definitively stop the smugglers’ business: bring the people recovered at sea to a Libyan port,” the ANSA news agency quoted him as saying.

If carried out, Salvini’s threat could pose legal issues for Italy, since the Italian government has already been faulted by the European Court of Human Rights for using its own ships to return migrants to Libya. Italy has gotten around that 2012 court ruling by helping Libya’s coast guard better patrol its own coasts to bring migrants back.

Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, demanded that Europe open its ports, and tweeted Sunday that Malta’s position was “worthy of sanction.”

Malta has defended its actions as entirely consistent with international law.