Growing tension over number of migrants in Italy, country’s ambassador says

Diplomat says ‘bureaucracy’ was reason for delay in deploying Naval ship to Mediterranean

The  ‘LÉ Eithne’ rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Photograph: Irish Defence Forces

The ‘LÉ Eithne’ rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Photograph: Irish Defence Forces

 

Italian ambassador to Ireland Giovanni Adorni Braccesi Chiassi has said there is growing tension in Italy over the large numbers of migrants landed after rescue in the Mediterranean.

However, the ambassador has welcomed the Government’s decision to deploy a Naval Service patrol ship for a third year in a row under a bilateral arrangement between Italy and Ireland. Mr Adorni was commenting after the Eithne sailed for the Mediterranean this week.

About 30 people including children are believed to have drowned off the Libyan coast on Wednesday when an overcrowded craft with some 500 on board listed.

At least 1,360 people are believed to have drowned already since the start of this year on the busiest and most perilous migrant route to Europe, from Libya.

Mr Adorni said the delay in signing off on the agreement to allow the LÉ Eithne to sail was “bureaucratic”.

The Naval Service patrol ship under the command of Cmdr Brian Fitzgerald had been ready to sail since May 1st.

Tensions

Mr Adorni said the delay had no connection with reported tensions between a Naval Service ship and the Italian Coastguard in 2015, which emerged during a trial of several alleged traffickers in Sicily earlier this month.

He also said that delays in Ireland’s acceptance of refugees under an EU relocation programme to assist Italy and Greece were “bureaucratic”, and he had no doubts about Ireland’s commitment to the programme.

An estimated 60,000 people have been landed into Italian ports since the beginning of this year, he said, and there was increasing political pressure over the large numbers, and a sense that other EU countries should be part of the solution.

That pressure was fuelled by criticism earlier this year of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in refugee rescue by EU border agency Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri.

In an interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper in February, Mr Leggeri called for rescue operations to be re-evaluated, and accused NGOs of ineffectively co-operating with security agencies against human traffickers.

Last year, Mr Leggeri had said that saving migrants’ lives in the Mediterranean should “not be the priority for the maritime patrols he is in charge of”, despite the demand for a more humane response from Europe.

NGOs have defended their actions, pointing out that their presence in the Mediterranean is necessary because of a lack of commitment by some EU member states to rescue missions.

Mr Adorni said there had been sittings of the Italian senate’s defence committee on the issue of NGO involvement.

“After having heard the various parties involved – NGOs, Italian Coast Guard and the judicial authorities – a report was recently published . . . to regulate the collaboration between NGOs and the naval forces in the rescue operations,” he said.

The Naval Service’s Operation Pontus has resulted in the rescue of 15,621 migrants since May, 2015. The Irish-Italian initiative spearheaded by then marine and defence minister Simon Coveney was set up after an international outcry when an estimated 900 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean in April 2015.

Italy had launched its own search and rescue mission in 2013 after 366 migrants drowned off the island of Lampedusa, but its Mare Nostrum project was then replaced by a more limited EU Triton operation which was focused on border control.