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Italy offers migrant ship passage to island port, softening its closed-door policy

A migrants points at a map of Europe aboard the Ocean Viking on Saturday.
A migrants points at a map of Europe aboard the Ocean Viking on Saturday. (Renata Brito/AP)
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ROME — Italy’s new government took a step back Saturday from a closed-port policy that had become a hallmark of the country’s anti-migrant stance, allowing a Mediterranean humanitarian rescue vessel to come ashore with 82 people aboard.

“We are now on our way to the island of Lampedusa, in Italy,” a crew member announced to the jubilant migrants, according to video from the boat.

Italy’s handling of the ship Ocean Viking gave the first possible clues to one of the most consequential questions facing its more left-leaning government: How does it respond when boats rescue people at sea and head toward Italy?

In this case, in a break from the previous administration, Italy did not threaten the rescue boat with fines or seizure if it entered territorial waters. Instead, the boat was forced to wait for six days in the Mediterranean, as several European countries drew up an ad hoc plan to redistribute the migrants, with a small portion remaining in Italy.

Some Italian lawmakers described the outcome as the start of a less hostile era toward people fleeing Africa and the Middle East.

But experts and some involved in rescuing migrants said it remained unclear whether Italy’s government, which formally took office Tuesday, would bring about wholesale changes.

They caution that Italy has hardly given an automatic open door to migrant rescue vessels. Such boats still wait at sea in limbo while European countries debate over what to do. They also note that Italy’s new government, which came to power after weeks of backroom negotiations, would face public backlash with any surge in migration.

The far-right League, which lost its place in the government coalition in a power-play-gone-wrong, remains the country’s most popular party. That party’s leader, Matteo Salvini, said Italy was reopening its ports and would become the “refugee field of Europe.”

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Luigi Di Maio, the head of the Five Star Movement, one of the two parties in the governing coalition, said it was a “great misunderstanding” to think Italy had changed course, noting that the boat was allowed to come toward port because of the arrangement reached with other European countries.

Over the previous 14 months, Italy — which had been the de facto landing spot — had forcefully slammed the door to humanitarian rescue vessels, upending how the continent handles migration. Europe has since struggled to draw up a system for how to handle migrants rescued at sea. In more than two dozen cases, boats have been stalled in the Mediterranean — sometimes for several weeks.

During previous standoffs, Salvini, a prolific social media user, would make repeated announcements that Italian ports were irrevocably closed to the nongovernmental groups he equated with smugglers. Salvini has been replaced as interior minister with a bureaucrat, Luciana Lamorgese. Italian media have noted that she does not have a Twitter account.

“Is the tide turning for [search-and-rescue] under Italy’s new government?” a German rescue group, Sea-Watch, said in a statement on Twitter. “Or is this minimal respect for the rule of international law a short-lived promise of change? Time will tell, but for now, we are relieved at the prospect of arrival for those awaiting safe harbor.”

The Ocean Viking, jointly run by French organizations Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, had picked up its migrants in two separate rescues.

The boat had originally rescued 84 people, but two — a woman about to give birth and her husband — were airlifted Wednesday to Malta. An SOS Méditerranée spokeswoman, Sophie Rahal, said she did not want to discuss politics, but she noted that when the Ocean Viking was operating in August, it was not given access to Italian ports.

“Yes, for us it is a change, as we are now officially allowed to enter the Italian waters,” she said.

Europe is dealing with political challenges of migration even as the number of new arrivals has plummeted from the crisis levels of 2015 and 2016.

Several Italian governments, including a left-center administration that preceded Salvini, have adopted measures to cut off flows across the Mediterranean, helping to rebuild the Libyan Coast Guard, which often intercepts dinghies and returns migrants to Libya. This year, some 5,800 people have arrived by sea in Italy, compared with more than 180,000 in 2016.

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The new Italian government is headed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who served in the same position in the coalition between the League and the Five Star Movement. But Conte has built more power for himself in the new administration and has signaled a willingness to deal with Europe on migration problems.

Several days ago, he suggested that the European Union set up a distribution plan in which countries that want to keep their doors closed face financial penalties. In an interview published Friday by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said Germany was willing to take 25 percent of migrants that land in Italy.

European Union countries are meeting later this month in Malta to discuss the migration proposals.

Judith Sunderland, the associate director for the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said Salvini had been less interested in negotiating with Europe over how to handle migration because “he benefited politically from every single standoff.”

“That is another reason why it is so important for there to be some kind of long-term predictable arrangement in place,” Sunderland said. “It’s also, in the long term, about demonstrating that Europe can have humane, rights-respecting policies around migration.”

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