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Showdown In Italy Over Migrants Rescued By Boat Captain Speaks To Deeper Tensions


To Italy now, where, over the last two weeks, a showdown has played out - on one side, a young female ship captain who rescues migrants seeking refuge in Europe; on the other, Italy's hard-right, anti-immigration interior minister.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli says the showdown speaks to deeper tensions between populists and liberals, tensions we've seen playing out across Europe. And Sylvia joins me now from Rome. Hey, there.


KELLY: So tell us exactly what has unfolded here. This all began back on June 12.

POGGIOLI: That's right. That's when the captain of the NGO ship Sea-Watch, 31-year-old Carola Rackete, and her crew rescued 53 migrants off the coast of Libya. They decided to head for the closest safe port, which is the Italian island of Lampedusa. But Italy's populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has introduced a controversial security decree that bans NGO migrant ships from entering Italian ports. He claims they essentially are in cahoots with human traffickers. But after two weeks on the high seas, the standoff continued.

KELLY: And just to be clear, Sylvia, they were just circling in the waters out there for two weeks, trying to figure out what to do next.

POGGIOLI: Exactly.

KELLY: OK. Go on. So after two weeks, what happens?

POGGIOLI: Well, she defies the ban. And as she was docking in the port, the ship rammed a small police boat that was blocking her - caused some damage, but no injuries. But she was arrested, and she was charged with what prosecutors actually claim was an act of war. Rackete also faces charge of abetting illegal immigration, and the NGO could face a fine of up to $57,000.

KELLY: What does she say - the captain? Does she say, I was just - I needed to dock the ship?

POGGIOLI: She said, I was respecting international law. And in fact, there are many constitutional experts here in Italy - also say that the decree is in violation of Italy's constitution and its treaties on international law, the U.N. convention on asylum and on the right of anybody to come into a country and ask for asylum.

KELLY: Now, issues of immigration and migrants, how to handle them - this has been front and center in Italy for years. How are Italians reacting to this case? How do they view the captain - what she was trying to do here?

POGGIOLI: Well, the reactions are as polarized as the country is, and she's a symbol of the divisions over the government's anti-migrant policies. Many on the center-left treat her as a heroine, while Salvini has called her a pirate and an outlaw. The media's dubbed this the battle of the two captains - Captain Rackete of the Sea-Watch and Salvini, who's known to his populist followers as il capitano.

The two of them could not present more polarizing images - Rackete with her dreadlocks and hippie look and tough-guy Salvini, who's fond of wearing police or firemen's sweatshirts. And we saw these divisions right out on the port of Lampedusa when many people were cheering her on. But a whole nother (ph) group shouted insults - put her in handcuffs - one man even screaming, I hope those Africans rape you.

KELLY: What has happened to the migrants who were on the boat?

POGGIOLI: They have been sheltered. And now, several of - because Salvini said, I won't accept them unless other countries take them. And several other European countries have agreed to divide them up.

KELLY: And meanwhile, in general, migrants are continuing to come to Europe in big numbers.

POGGIOLI: Not really. There's been a huge drop in the first six months of this year - 2,100, compared to about 14,300 the year before. That's an 85% drop.

KELLY: Yeah.

POGGIOLI: But humanitarian agency are warning that migrants are gearing up to leave Libya on these rickety vessels and that the lack of humanitarian ships patrolling the Mediterranean will put their lives at risk. The UNHCR has actually warned of a sea of blood if the rescue ships are not deployed again.

KELLY: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.