Italy’s new government allowed a French charity ship to bring ashore 82 migrants on Saturday in an apparent reversal of the uncompromising, closed-door policy of the previous administration.
However, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who heads the 5-Star Movement in the governing coalition, said the Ocean Viking was only being given access to the southern island of Lampedusa because other European states had agreed to take in many of those on board.
The government formally took office on Tuesday, promising a fresh approach to migration following the hardline clampdown on rescue ships introduced by former interior minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday that “several EU countries” had agreed to take in the Africans aboard the Ocean Viking but did not give further details. The ship is run by French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders.
It picked up the migrants off Libya earlier this week and had asked both Italy and Malta for permission to dock. Recent such requests from other boats had been rejected, leaving migrants stranded at sea for prolonged periods.
The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which has replaced the League in the ruling coalition, applauded the announcement that the vessel had been given access to Lampedusa.
“The Government has assigned a safe port to the Ocean Viking and the migrants will be welcomed in by many European countries. This is the end of Salvini’s propaganda played out on the backs of desperate people at sea,” said Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.
Salvini’s tough line on immigration fuelled the popularity of his League party, which pulled out of its coalition with the 5-Star last month in a vain attempt to trigger new elections. He lambasted Saturday’s decision.
“The new government is reopening the ports. Italy is going back to being Europe’s REFUGEE CAMP. (These are) abusive ministers who hate Italians,” Salvini wrote on Twitter.
During his 14 months at the interior ministry, Salvini introduced rules barring rescue ships from entering Italian waters, saying Italy had borne too much responsibility for handling African migration to Europe.
Ships that defied the order risked being impounded and were threatened with fines of up to a million euros (£879,718).
The 5-Star Movement embraced those measures and Di Maio told reporters on Saturday that the new government had not changed course. He said the Ocean Viking was only being let into Lampedusa because EU states had agreed to help house those aboard.
“There is a great misunderstanding regarding the fact that a safe port has been assigned to Ocean Viking,” he said in Rome.
“It must be clear that, even in the past with the previous government, our goal was to ensure that those migrants who arrived in Italy were redistributed to other European countries and now new mechanisms and new automatic responses have been created that allow us to redistribute (migrants).”
The government has not given details of any new system for sharing out migrants. Salvini said a previous such plan failed, with EU neighbours dragging their feet to take in the new arrivals, effectively leaving them stranded in Italy.