Italian leaders send conflicting messages on migrants at sea

In this Monday, Dec. 24, 2018 photo and provided by Sea Watch, a migrants sits aboard the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3. Over 30 migrants saved in the central Mediterranean sea by the German no-profit rescue organization Sea-Watch are still stranded after five days at sea, because no European country is opening its ports to receive them. (Chris Grodotzki/Sea Watch Via AP)

ROME — The leaders of the populist parties that formed Italy's government sparred Saturday over more migrants stranded on private rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, exposing cracks in their coalition's position on immigration.

German humanitarian groups Sea-Watch and Sea Eye are seeking a port where two ships can disembark passengers who were picked up from unseaworthy smugglers' boats, 32 of them on Dec. 22 and 17 more in recent days.

Malta allowed the aid boats to shelter from bad weather near its coast and to take on fresh crew, food and water. But the tiny island nation has refused to let any of those migrants step onto Maltese land, saying the rescues took place outside the country's search-and-rescue area.

Italian Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio, who heads the 5-Star Movement, insisted Saturday that Malta had to allow the 49 people off the ships. De Maio said Italy was willing to take the 10 mothers on the aid vessels and their children.

Since the coalition government came to power in mid-2018, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the right-wing, anti-migrant League party, has made it strict policy that no private aid group receive authorization to transfer rescued migrants to land in Italian ports.

Both he and Di Maio have likened private aid vessels to "taxi services" for Libya-based human traffickers. Amid criticism of the Italian government's new hard-line stand, they also have reminded other European Union nation's that Italy has taken in hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants as asylum-seekers in recent years.

Di Maio stressed Saturday that Italy was offering to accept the limited number of women and children from the rescue ships to keep families together. Such as gesture, he said, would also give "a good moral slap" to EU nations that have ignored Italy's insistence that the burden of caring for rescued asylum-seekers be shared.

"We're not going backward on migration policy, which has allowed us to reduce disembarking considerably," Di Maio said.

But Salvini contradicted his governing partner, telling journalists Italy intended to stick with its private rescue vessel ban and wouldn't be taking the 10 mothers and their children.

"We opened our hearts and our wallets. Now, it's someone else's turn," Salvini said.

As for any possible softening of Italy's immigration policy, Salvini also tweeted "I'm not changing my mind."

Both politicians slammed Malta for refusing to let the 49 disembark, but the EU nation retorted that it had rescued and permitted onto on its shores some 250 migrants between Christmas and New Year's.

The recent rescues "are putting a strain on our services," Maltese Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia said, adding that Italian authorities had not articulated a clear position about the migrants on the aid boats due to the contradictory statements by Italy's leaders.

Farrugia has said the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, was working on an ad hoc plan to find countries where the 250 migrants in Malta and the 49 on the aid boats could have asylum applications processed.

While politicians squabbled, Sea-Watch appealed on Twitter for a rapid, "reasonable solution that guarantees a port, medical care and food to women, children and men at the mercy of the waves."

Di Maio's opening to taking some of the migrants appeared calculated to placate a faction of his party uncomfortable with the government's rejection of rescued migrants.

Championing that 5-Star faction is Roberto Fico, the speaker of the Italian Parliament's lower chamber.

"We can't allow human beings, who are fleeing from pain, death and suffering to be left in unacceptable conditions," he wrote on Facebook.

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Stephen Calleja contributed from Valletta, Malta.

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Frances D'Emilio is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio

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