ON JULY 7, 41 asylum seekers disembarked at the Italian port of Lampedusa after a rescue boat picked them up off the coast of Libya. The Alex was the second charity vessel to defy the “closed ports” decree of Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, sparking outrage from the far-right populist government. The ship’s captain is being investigated for abetting illegal immigration — the result of a security decree passed last month that threatens nongovernment rescue vessels with seizures and fines of up to $57,000 for bringing unauthorized refugees into territorial waters.
Mr. Salvini’s crackdown on asylum seekers is part of a larger trend. The number of people fleeing to Europe from Africa and the Middle East has fallen dramatically since the 2015 migratory crisis peak, but European countries are becoming increasingly draconian in their refugee policies — in some respects, even more so than the Trump administration.
This month’s events in Italy closely follow the arrest of rescue ship captain Carola Rackete on June 28 under similar circumstances. Both boats spent days stranded at sea before eventually docking, and both of their organizations were fined. Fortunately, the Italian judge overseeing Ms. Rackete’s case lifted her house arrest, arguing that she was fulfilling her duty to protect life and should not be detained as prosecutors continue to investigate. A third charity ship, the Alan Kurdi, was also denied permission to enter Italian waters last week. The vessel, carrying 65 refugees shipwrecked off the coast of Libya, eventually had to change course to Malta as conditions on board reached a point of emergency.
In 2018, 116,647 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, compared with more than 1 million three years earlier. In barring rescuers from transporting the comparatively few migrants who still seek refuge on Italian shores, Mr. Salvini is asking refugee organizations to break long-standing international laws, including an obligation under the Law of the Sea treaty to help any person in danger at sea.
Philanthropic organizations should not be prevented from offering salvation in life-threatening situations. Italy should withdraw last month’s decree and end the penalizing of charity vessels that are protecting vulnerable lives. Mr. Salvini should allow asylum seekers to disembark and relocate safely.
The European Union is also complicit as it supports the Libyan coast guard in returning refugees and migrants to Libya when they are discovered at sea. An airstrike on the Tajoura detention center outside Tripoli on July 2, which killed at least 53 migrants, tragically demonstrated that the migrants are being forced to return to an unsafe area. The E.U. should be protecting those fleeing war-torn nations by taking responsibility for rescue missions instead of colluding to have refugees returned.
Mr. Salvini has profited politically from his cruel attacks on migrants and has responded by doubling down. Other Italian and European leaders must reject his callous and cynical disregard for the protection of innocent lives.