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Italy closes ports to migrant ships because of coronavirus

At least 150 people rescued off coast of Libya are currently on board German Sea-Eye rescue ship waiting to disembark at safe harbour
Sea-Eye rescue ship Alan Kurdi during its inauguration in Palma de Mallorca last February (AFP/file photo)

The Italian government says it will not allow charity ships to disembark migrants and refugees at its ports after ruling that they are not "a place of safety" because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision came by decree late on Tuesday after a ship run by the German NGO Sea-Eye picked up about 150 people off the Libyan coast and headed towards Italy.

"For the entire duration of the national health emergency caused by the spread of the Covid-19 virus, Italian ports cannot guarantee the requisites needed to be classified and defined as a place of safety," said the decree, which was signed by Italy's interior, transport and health ministries.

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The measure effectively shutters Italian ports to rescue boats until at least 31 July, but that deadline might be extended, depending on Italy's ability to curb the outbreak. 

The closures are particularly worrisome now, as departures from Libya are expected to increase with the onset of good weather.

While most rescue ships that normally patrol the coast of Libya have halted operations as the world grapples with the spread of the coronavirus, Sea-Eye chose to disembark for its latest rescue operation sometime early last week.

It rescued the 150 people in two separate missions on 6 April, and posted an announcement on Twitter the next day about the importance of their ongoing operations.

"Even when life in Europe has almost come to a halt, human rights must be protected," the group said on Twitter. "Now our guests need a port of safety. #LeaveNoOneBehind"

'Shots were fired'

In a video posted by the group on Twitter, migrants could be seen jumping ship despite repeated screams of "stop" and "don't" coming from the crew of the Sea-Eye vessel, the Alan Kurdi, which is named for a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in 2015 as his family was trying to reach Europe.

"During the rescue, a Libyan-flagged speedboat endangered the work of Sea-Eye's rescue crew. After shots were fired in the air, approximately half of the people on the wooden boat jumped into the water in panic without life jackets and tried to swim towards the Alan Kurdi," the group said in a statement, adding that it was able to rescue all the passengers onboard. 

Prior to Italy's formal decree, both the Italian and Maltese governments had warned the Sea-Eye that the countries would not be accepting migrants from rescue ships amid fears of exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus.

The Sea-Eye said Germany had also warned against continuing its rescue efforts, but Gorden Isler, chairman of rescue group, said 150 cities in Germany have declared their readiness to receive migrants.

"It must be imaginable and humanly possible to send an aircraft for 150 safety-seeking people to Southern Europe in order to immediately evacuate these people," he said.