Hundreds of migrants face Christmas at sea as Italy closes ports

Italy again played hardball with a migrant rescue charity on Saturday after the country was implored to allow a ship carrying more than 300 rescued migrants to disembark.

Far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini rejected the request, saying in a tweet: "My answer is clear: Italian ports are closed!"

"For the traffickers of human beings and for those who help them, the fun is over," Salvini added, referring to his previous claim that some migrant rescue ships have become a taxi service for migrants.

Read more: Europe's migrant rescue boats face uncertain future

Rescued but in limbo

The Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms said it had picked up 311 migrants — including pregnant women and children — on Friday from vessels in difficulty in the Mediterranean, and that a mother and newborn baby had been evacuated to Malta.

The charity called on Italy to allow the other rescued migrants to dock, or they would likely spend Christmas at sea on its vessel.

In a tweet, it said the situation was becoming "an emergency," adding Malta had rejected calls to supply food to the migrants.

Another migrant rescue group, Sea Watch International of Germany, also urged authorities in European Countries to help, so that the rescued "can spend Christmas in a safe harbor."

Italy's burden diminished

Although the number of migrants crossing from Libya to Italy has fallen sharply since its peak last year, this part of the Mediterranean has been the most deadly for those attempting to make it to Europe.

Read more: Two minors rescued from Mediterranean floating on truck tire

More than 1,300 migrants have perished trying to reach Italy or Malta since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Italy's populist government, however, was elected in May on a promise to take a more hardline approach to the migrant crisis, and Salvini, in particular, has been outspoken about his unwillingness to host rescue vessels.

Earlier this year, Italy and Malta refused permission for the Aquarius rescue boat run by Doctors Without Borders to dock at any of its ports, and the migrants eventually disembarked in Spain, having spent several days at sea.

'No collusion'

Migrant rescue groups have repeatedly rejected accusations of collusion with people traffickers in Libya, insisting that their work is purely humanitarian.

Read more: Migrants refuse to disembark in Libya after being rescued at sea

Despite obstruction by some European countries, several charities, including Germany's Sea-Eye are still operating in the Mediterranean.

Another Germany rescue ship, Sea-Eye, set off from the southern Spanish port of Algeciras earlier this week, as the narrow stretch of water between Morocco and Spain have increasingly become the preferred route for migrant crossings.

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