ROME - Italian authorities have seized Italian charity ship Mare Jonio and questioned the crew, which might have defied an Interior Ministry order that closes all ports to vessels carrying rescued migrants.
The Mare Jonio is docked and empty in the port of Lampedusa, confiscated by authorities after its crew was placed under investigation by Sicilian magistrates for allegedly favoring illegal immigration. The 49 migrants who were on board, including 12 minors, disembarked in Lampedusa late Tuesday. They were given food, water and fresh clothing two days after their rescue off the Libyan coast.
Authorities first questioned the owner and captain of the vessel Tuesday night and further questioning of the crew was taking place Wednesday to reconstruct the entire rescue operation in Libyan waters and the requests made for the migrants to disembark in a safe port. Owner Beppe Caccia said he had asked to see the formal written request banning the vessel from entering Italian waters, but none was made available.
Alessandra Sciurba, the spokesperson for NGO Mediterranea, which runs the vessel, said there was "no order to take the migrants to Libya, not by the Libyans or by the Italians."
Italian authorities said the Mare Jonio had not been granted permission to enter the island’s port. The captain of the boat said he had decided to push forward, citing security reasons and rough seas. The NGO said the migrants had been saved from either drowning or from being returned to the "horror from which they were fleeing."
The mayor of Lampedusa, Salvatore Martello, said that with the law of the sea, if a vessel is flying an Italian flag, that boat must be allowed into an Italian port.
The rescued migrants are in the Lampedusa reception center waiting to be told where they will be transferred next. The last arrival of migrants on the island took place three weeks ago. Arrivals have noticeably decreased since Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini started enforcing a closed port policy last year.