The migrant rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 was stopped outside the island of Lampedusa by Italian authorities on Wednesday after it defied an order from Rome blocking it from coming ashore.
The German-owned ship, which flies under the Dutch flag, had been stranded in the Mediterranean Sea for two weeks.
Facing an increasingly desperate situation on board, the captain of the boat said she had decided to ignore Italy’s decree and head to port.
“I know what I’m risking,” Carola Rackete said on Twitter. “But the 42 survivors I have on board are exhausted. I’m taking them to safety.”
And, given Italy’s increasingly hard-line stance on immigration, the risks are high.
Under populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy shuttered its ports to migrant rescue vessels in June 2018. And, earlier this month, it adopted a decree that could see ships docking without authorization face fines of up to $57,000.
Though the decree does not mention migrant rescue ships specifically, it is a clear attempt to deter such vessels — which pluck thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean each year — from docking in Italian ports.
The Sea-Watch 3 is one of the first vessels to test the new rule.
By Wednesday evening, Italian authorities had come aboard the vessel to check the crew’s documentation — providing the starkest example yet of the decree’s intent.
“They have checked our ship certificate and the passports of the crew and now they are awaiting further instructions from their superiors,” Rackete said, referring to the Italian financial police.
“I really hope they will take the rescuees off the ship soon,” she added.
But the reaction from Salvini suggested otherwise.
“Lampedusa and Italy need paying tourists, not illegal immigrants whom we need to support,” the interior minister said on Twitter.
Salvini’s office released a press statement calling the move a “provocation and hostile act,” while urging Holland to “take charge of the migrants on board.”
But so far, no European governments have come forward to accept the migrants.
Human Rights Watch has demanded that EU countries take joint accountability for the migrant crisis, and urgently agree a mechanism that ensures the predictable disembarkation of people rescued at sea.
“Having stranded people at sea for weeks, Italy should not compound that abuse by prosecuting the Sea Watch captain for the vessel’s lifesaving efforts,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s high time that European Union institutions and members started looking at their own responsibility for a heartless policy that would rather see people die at sea or tortured in Libya than delivered to safety in Europe.”