ROME: Prosecutors in Sicily on Saturday opened an inquiry into Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for “illegal confinement, illegal arrest and abuse of power,” reports said, over his refusal to allow over 100 rescued migrants off a coast guard ship.
At the same time, Salivini suggested that an end to the drama could be in sight telling a political meeting “the migrants on board the Diciotti ship will disembark in the coming hours,” adding that they would be taken in by the Italian church “by bishops who are opening their doors, their hearts and their wallets.”
Authorities earlier allowed a dozen migrants to leave the Diciotti where they have been stranded for days, as it also hailed Albania for offering to accept some of those on board.
Rome has blocked most of the migrants from stepping off the boat which docked at the port of Catania in Sicily on Monday night, leaving them trapped as Italy pushes other EU nations to take them in.
Their fate has sparked a fresh immigration row between Italy’s populist government and the EU, with Rome on Friday threatening to pull some of its funding for the bloc as a “compensatory measure” if it refuses to help.
Prosecutors in Sicily said that they were now investigating Salvini in connection with the migrants’ plight. The minister earlier brushed aside reports of a broader inquiry into who was responsible saying late Friday that officials were following orders issued by “the director — that is to say me.”
Out of a total of 150 people on board, health authorities authorized 17 — 11 women and six men — to leave the ship on Saturday.
But only 12 disembarked, after several women refused to leave if it meant being separated from family members still on board, media reported.
Italy’s Foreign Ministry praised Albania “for its decision to welcome 20 refugees from the Diciotti, a sign of great solidarity,” in a tweet.
Albania, which is not an EU member, is the only country so far to offer to host some of those on board the ship.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on EU member states to “urgently” provide places for those stranded on the ship.
“In the meantime, UNHCR urges Italian authorities to allow the immediate disembarkation of those on board,” it said.
Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived since 2013, fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Under EU rules people must seek asylum in their country of arrival, but Rome has increasingly barred boats from docking at its ports.
A high-level meeting of a dozen EU member states in Brussels on Friday failed to produce an immediate solution for the Diciotti migrants.
“The European Union has decided to turn its back on Italy once again,” Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on his Facebook page.
“They want the 20 billion euros ($23 billion) paid by Italian citizens? Then let them demonstrate that they deserve it and that they are taking charge of a problem that we can no longer face alone. The borders of Italy are the borders of Europe,” he added.
Brussels quickly hit back at Di Maio’s “threats” on Friday.
EU figures for 2016 say Italy contributed just under 14 billion euros to the EU budget — less than one percent of its gross national income — while the bloc spent 11.6 billion euros in Italy.
Salvini stopped the majority of the migrants disembarking from the Diciotti after they were rescued on August 15, but he allowed 27 unaccompanied minors off the boat on Wednesday.
Opinion polls suggest that Salvini’s stance has boosted his far-right League party’s approval rating to around 30 percent — a more than 10 point jump from its showing in March’s election.
It is now level with the Five Star Movement with which it has governed Italy since early June.
According to Salvini’s own ministry, migrant arrivals are more than 80 percent down on the same period last year, with just over 19,500 arriving up to August 23, compared to 98,000 in 2017.