As It Happens

Activists launch Italian-flagged migrant rescue ship to counter government blockade

A group of activists has launched a migrant rescue ship under an Italian flag in the hopes that Italy will either let them dock with people saved at sea — or pay a political price for refusing them entry.

Michael Hardt says the Italian government cannot refuse a ship flying an Italian flag

Activists hope Italy will be forced to accept migrants arriving on their Italian-flagged rescue vessel Mare Jonio. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

In recent months, Italy is not exactly a welcoming place for migrants.

In several high-profile confrontations this summer, Matteo Salvini, the minister in charge of security, has refused entry to people rescued at sea, aying, "Italians come first." 

But can he turn away those who have a local escort?

A group of activists is challenging Salvini to try. They have launched a rescue ship in the Mediterranean with an Italian flag. That means, in theory, Italy cannot turn the ship away at port.

Michael Hardt, a professor of literature at Duke University and part of the team behind the Mare Jonio vessel, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the project. Here is part of their conversation.

Where is this rescue ship right now?

It's now in the search and rescue zone off of the Libyan coast.

The MV Aquarius rescue ship is seen as migrants are rescued by the SOS Mediterranee organisation during a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan Coast. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

You launched this ship for an anniversary. What were you remembering by launching this ship?

On Oct. 3 of 2013, there was a tragic incident of migrants drowning off the coast of Italy, off the coast of the island of Lampedusa.

And it's in some ways symbolic of the continuing drowning of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean at really an alarming rate, which continues to this year.

We have been covering this over these years. Just awful, tragic stories. It's just getting worse, isn't it? It actually hasn't improved for those who are crossing the Mediterranean.

It hasn't improved and in some ways you could say, politically, it's gotten worse. The Italian government, in the last year, has blocked humanitarian efforts and has posed obstacles to rescue missions. 

Protesters hold a banner showing a drawing of the Interior Minister Matteo Salvini during a demonstration in support of immigrant integration. (Matteo Bazzi /Associated Press)

There are people who have been left to drown. It's gone that far, hasn't it?

Absolutely. Almost 2,000 have drowned since January of this year. They're really startling numbers. 

The ship that you have launched, the Mare Jonio, what is it able to do that other ships are not?

Over the summer, really in the last several months, there have been two very highly publicized cases of the Italian government blocking rescue efforts.

One of them was of the ship Aquarius, which was contracted by Doctors Without Borders. They refused to allow it to enter into the port in Italy. It was not flying an Italian flag. In fact, most of the rescue ships that are contracted by humanitarian NGOs do not fly the Italian flag.

So this ship, the Mare Jonio, is flying an Italian flag with mostly an Italian crew. And therefore, legally, the Italian government cannot refuse entry into port because flying an Italian-flagged ship is essentially part of Italian territory.

So you're thinking that you can rescue, you can recover, migrants from the boats that they're in and you can bring them to Italian shores in your vessel?

Absolutely, right. And that they can then apply for refugee status, as they should.

But we know that there was an Italian coast guard ship that docked in an Italian port in August. And the government at first refused to even let those migrants leave the boat even though it was an Italian boat. Why do you think you'll be able to get around that when you arrive with rescued migrants?

OK, maybe I'm not confident that will happen. I mean, that's the intention, of course, of the mission. If it weren't to happen, and the Italian government were to block it illegally, that would be an important act to protest.

So it's very difficult to predict what the Italian government would do, but I guess one has to plan for all such eventualities.

Members of the Mare Jonio set up an infirmary onboard as they join forces with the British-flagged NGO Proactiva Open Arms in the central Mediterranean Sea. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

So is this launch of this ship as much a political statement, a political action, as it is a rescue mission?

I think it's first and foremost a humanitarian effort. But like many such efforts, I think it also has a — I would say first pedagogical value, as much as political.

I think it's important for people to recognize what the governments are doing regarding migrant rescue.

Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.