Italy has urged its EU neighbours to take in migrant boats and threatened to close its ports as the country struggles to cope with huge numbers of people attempting to reach its southern shorelines illegally.
Interior minister Marco Minniti said the country’s coastguard may start turning back rescue boats carrying migrants plucked from the sea if other countries fail to take their share of strain.
Italy and a number of other EU states have accused some of these vessels of aiding people smugglers by saving migrants from unseaworthy dinghies, encouraging others to make the hazardous journey in hope of being rescued themselves.
“We are under enormous pressure,” Minniti said in an interview with Il Messaggero on Sunday.
“There are NGO ships, Sophia and Frontex boats, Italian coast guard vessels saving migrants in the Mediterranean.
“They are sailing under the flags of various European countries. If the only ports where refugees are taken to are Italian, something is not working. This is the heart of the question.
“I am a Europhile and I would be proud if even one vessel, instead of arriving in Italy, went to another European port. It would not resolve Italy’s problem, but it would be an extraordinary signal of support.”
More than 10,000 migrants have been taken to Italy after being rescued from flimsy people smugglers’ boats over the last week alone.
At least 69 are thought to have lost their lives along the same stretch of coastline where millions of Europeans spend their summer holidays.
Miguel Parcha, captain of a coastguard boat charged with rescuing migrants from the sea, said: “We hear terrible stories. Pregnant women and children raped, others have been tortured or seen family members murdered.
“We had an avalanche of migrants a few years ago and I worry the same is happening again.”
Many of the migrant boats that make their way to the shores of Italy and Spain are launched from the North African coast by ruthless Libyan people smuggling gangs who care little if their human cargo reaches their intended destination alive.
Express.co.uk reported this weekend that Libyan coastguards have been accused of colluding with human trafficking gangs, firing shot at migrants and becoming involved in the sale of refugees.
A source told the paper: “Basically the country is run by mafia and this is how they fund their operations.
“Migrants are the major source of income and are sold on either as slaves or back to facilitators who sell them on again. The coastguard are just an extension of this regardless of what flag is flown.”