«These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates, they will only see Italy through a telescope,» said Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who has cracked down on illegal immigration, including closing Italy’s ports to charity ships, since he took office in June last year.
«This is clearly a case of organised crime,» Salvini said on Facebook on Wednesday. «Our ports remain closed.»
The governments of Malta and Italy vowed to keep it from their territorial waters in the Mediterranean while it was under control of the migrants.
«Poor castaways, who hijack a merchant ship that saved them because they want to decide the route of the cruise,» Salvini, who heads the anti-migrant League party, was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.
Italian media reports said the crew planned to take the group it rescued to Libya and was headed that way when migrants seized control of the ship six miles from the Libyan coast.
A private group that operates a rescue ship and monitors how governments treat migrants, Mediterranea, urged compassion for the group on the hijacked vessel and said it hoped European countries would act «in the name of fundamental rights, remembering that we are dealing with human beings fleeing hell.»
A Maltese military official told Maltese media the ship was carrying 108 migrants. The official was not authorised to speak to reporters and requested anonymity.
Italy’s Salvini said weather conditions were not good and it was unclear if the tanker would end up approaching Malta or Lampedusa island. But he had a message for the pirates: «Forget about Italy.»
Mass migration to Europe has dropped sharply since 2015, when the continent received one million refugees and migrants from countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The surge created a humanitarian crisis in which desperate travellers frequently drowned and leading arrival spots such as Italy and Greece struggled to house large numbers of asylum-seekers.
Along with the dangerous sea journey itself, those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean risk being stopped by Libya’s coast guard and held in Libyan detention centres that human rights groups have described as bleak places where migrants allegedly suffer routine abuse.
EU members «alert the Libyan coast guard when refugees and migrants are spotted at sea so they can be taken back to Libya, despite knowing that people there are arbitrarily detained and exposed to widespread torture, rape, killings and exploitation,» Matteo de Bellis, an international migration researcher for Amnesty International, said. «
European Union member countries, responding to domestic opposition to welcoming immigrants, have decided to significantly downscale an EU operation in the Mediterranean, withdrawing their ships and continuing the mission with air surveillance only.
EU officials on Wednesday lamented the move, while Amnesty International and other groups responded by reiterated its view that Europe’s collaboration with Libya to stem migration was a rights outrage.
«This shameful decision has nothing to do with the needs of people who risk their lives at sea, but everything to do with the inability of European governments to agree on a way to share responsibility for them,» de Bellis said.
Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party, has been at the centre of several international stand-offs over his refusal to let humanitarian ships dock in Italy.
This month parliament rejected a request by prosecutors to investigate him for kidnapping over a case in August when he blocked an Italian coastguard ship with 150 migrants aboard for almost a week off Sicily before finally letting it dock.