Over the past several months, EU member states have been at odds over migrant rescue ships picking up asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East who cross the Mediterranean seeking a better future in Europe.
Italy has ordered the seizure of the migrant rescue ship Aquarius for alleged illegal waste disposal, Agence France Presse reported on Tuesday, citing a statement by Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontiere MSF) international humanitarian organisation.
The vessel, chartered by MSF and the SOS Mediterranee charity and currently docked in the French port of Marseille, is suspected of passing off 24 tonnes of potentially toxic waste as ordinary waste, Italian media reported.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania are running an inquiry into migrant clothing, food leftovers and sanitary waste that was handled at Italian ports from the Aquarius and the Vos Prudence, another vessel chartered by MSF last year.
On 10 June, Italy refused to accept the Aquarius, carrying migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. The decision was harshly criticised by French President Emmanuel Macron angering Rome, who summoned the French ambassador in response.
Italy closed its ports to the Aquarius refugees, saying that Malta was the closest and safest port to accommodate the vessel. The Maltese authorities, in turn, said the issue was beyond their jurisdiction and also denied entry to its ports.
The Spanish authorities then said they were ready to let the Aquarius dock in its eastern port of Valencia.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose right-wing Eurosceptic League party formed a government in a coalition with the Five Star Movement earlier this year, has taken a hard line on immigration, repeatedly saying Italy will ‘no longer be Europe’s refugee camp’.
The International Organisation for Migration says that about 15,000 migrants have drowned in the central Mediterranean since 2013.
Over the same period Italy has seen 600,000 migrants land on its coastline, while other European nations have closed their borders.