ROME (AP) — A humanitarian boat carrying 147 migrants rescued at sea was eventually allowed to let nine persons disembark Thursday night on a tiny Italian island, but the others were stuck aboard for a 15th night, as the drama was swept up in Italy’s rapidly worsening government crisis.
With a political standoff exacerbated by the migration issue, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte rebuked his interior minister for being “obsessive” about closing Italian ports in a migrant crackdown.
The Spanish rescue boat Open Arms tweeted that the “urgent” evacuation of five persons was authorized for psychological reasons and four family members were allowed to accompany them. The nine were transferred by the Italian coast guard in a motorized rubber dinghy.
The fate of the remaining 138 migrants stayed unresolved.
“We continue to not have authorization to disembark the other persons aboard,” Open Arms said. “This will be their 15th night” sleeping on the crowded ship, which has described deteriorating medical and hygiene conditions.
In an open letter to Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Conte rebuked the right-wing leader of the junior coalition League party for his “obsessive concentration in facing the theme of immigration, reducing it to a “closed ports’ formula.”
Salvini shot back at a news conference that he was “proud” of his “obsession,” saying that he is determined to keep Italy safe and its borders secured, because “that’s what Italian citizens pay me for.”
“I’d expect a ‘thank you” not a follow-up with insults,” Salvini later told Sky TG24 TV.
While other private rescue boats have been caught up in standoffs caused by Salvini’s policy of refusing docking to charity boat, the Open Arms’ crew and migrants risked being collateral damage in Italy’s rapidly worsening government crisis.
Last week, Salvini’s League brought a non-confidence motion against Conte’s 14-month-old populist government. No date has been set for the showdown in the Senate, which could trigger the government’s collapse.
Earlier on Thursday, Spain and five other nations agreed to take who were aboard Open Arms.
But the ad hoc offers by fellow European Union nations did little to calm the political turmoil that could lead to early elections that the euro-skeptic Salvini hopes will give him the premiership in his quest to move Italy farther to the right.
In the open letter posted on Facebook, Premier Giuseppe Conte accused his interior minister of “disloyal cooperation … that I cannot accept.”
Earlier this week, Conte had urged Salvini to allow the disembarking of the 32 minors, but the interior minister ignored the appeal.
On Wednesday, a Rome-based administrative court overruled Salvini’s ban on letting Open Arms sail into Italian waters. In defiance, Salvini again banned the ship from Italian waters and from docking at Lampedusa. Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta, to whom the Italian navy answers, refused to countersign it.
Trenta said she acted “listening to my conscience.”
“We can’t forget that behind the polemics of these days there are children and youths who suffered violence and every kind of abuse,” she said.
Trenta is from the 5-Star Movement, the senior coalition party, which backs Conte.
Salvini insists that other EU nations accept more migrants, most of whom are fleeing poverty and aren’t eligible for refugee status.
Conte in his letter announced that France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg said they’re willing to take the migrants on Open Arms.
Salvini’s League stokes fears that migrants are to blame for crime and feeds resentment among his voter base against Brussels for its lack of solidarity, since EU rules hold that migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they set foot.
Salvini is openly campaigning to be Italy’s next premier even though no new elections have been set. He seized upon the Open Arms stalemate, the latest in a series of standoffs, to blame Italy’s migrant plight on the previous center-left governments led by the Democratic Party (PD), now Parliament’s biggest opposition force.
“It’s thanks to this presumed concept of ‘humanity’ that in years of the PD governments that Italy became the refugee camp of Europe,” Salvini said on Facebook.
Maneuvering this week among Italy’s political leaders has raised the possibility of the 5-Stars forging an alliance with the Democrats to thwart Salvini’s quest for the premiership.
Even as the fighting over Open Arms played out, another migrant rescue boat drama loomed.
The Ocean Viking, a Norwegian ship operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, was awaiting word of where it can safely disembark 356 migrants it rescued from traffickers’ unseaworthy boats. So far it has appealed to Italy and Malta in vain.
A UNICEF regional official urged immediate action to at least let the minors on the rescue boats land.
“It is unconscionable that once again politics have been prioritized over saving the lives of children who are stranded on the Mediterranean Sea,” Afshan Khan said, noting that the two ships had 130 children and “only 11 of the 103 children aboard the Viking Ocean are accompanied by a parent or guardian.”
Aritz Parra in Madrid and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
Frances D’Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio