Italy lets migrants on coast guard ship disembark, threats to withhold EU funding

Source: Xinhua| 2018-08-27 21:35:23|Editor: xuxin
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By Alessandra Cardone

ROME, Aug. 27 (Xinhua) -- About 140 migrants and refugees on an Italian coast guard vessel were allowed to disembark in Sicily over the weekend, after being confined on board for six days amid tensions between Italy and the European Union (EU) over their relocation.

The Italian government, led on this issue by hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, refused to let most of them off the boat until a specific solution was provided late on Saturday.

The Italian Catholic Church would now welcome 100 of them, and another 40 would be equally relocated between Ireland and Albania (a non-EU country), according to the cabinet.

On the issue, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stated Italy might withhold the country's funding to the next EU budget, confirming an earlier threat made by Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio.

Referring to an EU informal meeting held with 12 member states (including Italy) in Brussels on Friday -- which failed to provide an immediate solution for the relocation -- Conte blamed the EU's lack of action.

The prime minister said Italian authorities would "draw their conclusion."

"Let me be even clearer: we are at work in order to put a reserve on Italy's acceptance of the (EU) multi-year financial plan under discussion," Conte wrote in a statement.

"Under these conditions, it is not possible for Italy to express its adherence to a provisional budget that implies such an inconsistent social policy," the PM added.

Di Maio -- who also leads governing anti-establishment Five Star Movement -- had been more outspoken in his criticism towards the EU on Friday.

"Once again, the EU has decided to turn its back on Italy, to care nothing for the principles of solidarity and responsibility," Di Maio wrote on Facebook.

"As a political force, we are not anymore ready to pay 20 billion euros (23 billion U.S. dollars) a year as they require. Do they want 20 billions from the Italian citizens? They must show they deserve them," he added.

According to EU statistics, Italy's contribution to the European budget was 13.94 billion euros in 2016, equal to 0.83 percent of the country's gross domestic product. In the same year, the EU spent 11.59 billion euros in Italy.

Meanwhile, the long detention of the migrants on board of the coast guard ship Diciotti raised strong protests at domestic and international level -- including from the UN refugee agency UNHCR -- and produced the first factual consequences.

Interior Minister Salvini was being investigated for "illegal confinement, illegal arrest, and abuse of power" by the prosecutor in Agrigento, Sicily, for his role in the event.

The prosecution office said the probe was opened following hearings the prosecutor held in Rome with top officers of the Immigration and Civil Liberties Department depending from the Interior Ministry.

Salvini brushed off the decision, saying in an interview to Il Messaggero newspaper on Monday that "the judicial probe would reveal itself a boomerang."

"I think they (Agrigento prosecution office) have miscalculated, if they believed they would stop or intimidate someone," the minister added.

Several signs of protests against the prolonged confinement of the migrants on board were sent to the interior ministry during the six-day standoff. The most recent step came from the Chairman of the Italian Medicines Agency (AIFA), Stefano Vella, who resigned on Saturday.

In a statement released by Ansa news agency, Vella explained that "as a doctor, I cannot tolerate to lead a public health body at a time when people are treated this way in our territory, where a universal health care system is in place."

Appeals to the interior ministry had previously arrived from the public prosecutor with the Juvenile Court in Catania and Italy's national authority for children and adolescents -- concerning 27 non-accompanied minors -- and the national ombudsman for the rights of the detained people.

The National Association of criminal lawyers Association (UCPI) also sent a letter to President Sergio Mattarella, urging his "authoritative intervention... to protect inviolable rights and the same founding principles of our living together."

The Diciotti had rescued the group of migrants and asylum-seekers -- 192 people, of which at least 130 from Eritrea -- off the Libyan coasts on Aug. 15.

The ship was allowed to dock at the Sicilian port of Catania only on Aug. 20, but without permit to disembark.

The unaccompanied minors were allowed to leave the boat on Aug. 22, while 16 sick people -- including two suffering from tuberculosis -- were evacuated before the weekend. (1 euro = 1.16 U.S. dollars)