EU Pledges Support, Italy Threatens to Close Ports in Surge of Migrants

Jun 30, 2017

The European Union has pledged to support Italy as it continues to admit thousands of migrants who are crossing the Mediterranean every day from North Africa.

So far this year nearly 80,000 people have made the journey, and more than 2,000 have died.

Poor health

Most of the tens of thousands of people plucked from the Mediterranean this week have been taken to ports on the Italian coast. They are severely dehydrated, usually malnourished and suffering from infections and skin diseases. But there are other troubling signs.

Marcella Kraay of Doctors Without Borders spoke to VOA via Skype from the group's rescue ship, Aquarius, as it disembarked more than a thousand migrants at the Italian port of Corigliano Calabro.

“We also see the results of people actually being physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, tortured,” Kraay said.

Help from EU

Italy's representative to the European Union has warned the situation is “unsustainable,” and threatened to stop vessels of other countries from bringing migrants to its ports.

Kraay sympathizes with Italy's position.

“We have not in any way formally been informed of this by the Italian government. But my first impression of this is that the main thing here is that it is actually a cry for help coming from the Italian government. And it would be actually good for other EU member states to take a bit more responsibility.”

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos offered Italy his support.

“Italy is under huge pressure and we are not going to leave this country alone.”

Italy legally bound

But Italy is obliged to take in the migrants, says refugee law expert Professor Geoff Gilbert of the University of Essex, also via Skype.

“The law of the sea, international refugee law, and international human rights law are all coming into play together. While I have a lot of sympathy for the Italian situation, I do not believe Italy can send back boats, even boats that are seaworthy, into the Mediterranean.”

Gilbert says Rome is likely trying to force the implementation of the 2015 EU agreement to share refugees across the bloc, which has so far made little progress.

This week more than 400 migrants in Italy clashed with police at the French border, demanding to be allowed through.