Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

Uproar as Italy seizes rescue ship over HIV infection claims

Italy's populist government said the unsafe disposal of migrants' clothing on the Aquaris could harm health

 Aquarius ship leaves the Marseille harbour, southern France. AP
 Aquarius ship leaves the Marseille harbour, southern France. AP

Italian authorities have ordered the seizure of the Aquarius in the latest move against the controversial migrant rescue ship after seizing on a scientifically bogus claim that HIV can be transmitted via old clothes.

Far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and supportive Italian media have promoted a scare campaign that HIV, meningitis and tuberculosis could be passed on through contaminated garments, something universally dismissed by medical experts, “Apparently I was right to close our ports to these ships,” Mr Salvini said in a tweet. “You can’t play with the health of the Italian people.”

Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania have alleged that Doctors Without Border (MSF) – the humanitarian organisation operating the rescue ship – illegally labelled the garments as “special waste” rather than “toxic waste”, saving around 460,000 euros in disposal costs.


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A total of 24 people associated with the Aquarius, including the ship’s captain, have been put under investigation for “trafficking and illegal management of waste”.

Sicilian prosecutors, who are currently investigating 24 tonnes of discarded material, have frozen some of it MSF's Italy-based bank accounts.

MSF rejected the accusations and filed an appeal. “The decision taken by the magistrates left us bewildered and indignant given the nature of the accusations brought against us,” director general of Italy’s MSF division, Gabriele Eminente, said in a press conference on Tuesday.

“How can an organisation like ours, which won the Nobel Peace Prize, stand accused of setting up an operation to illegally dispose of waste?”

Mr Eminente added that MSF was being the victim of a political game it wanted to be left out of. The two charities operating the Aquarius, MSF and SOS Mediterranee, previously denounced the “blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian government,” whom they see as responsible for Panama’s decision in September to revoke the Panamanian flag that had allowed the Aquarius to operate at sea.

While it is still unclear whether MSF broke any rules in disposing of the waste material, there is no evidence the erroneous disposal could have resulted in HIV transmission. According to the US Centres for Disease Control "close or lengthy contact” is necessary to spread meningitis bacteria, while tuberculosis “is transmitted through the air, not by surface contact” and “you cannot get TB from someone’s clothes”.

Nonetheless daily newspaper “Il Giornale” spoke of “dangerous garments” while “Libero” featured a quote by Salvini in its headline. “HIV, syphilis, meningitis: ports will remain closed,” it said.

In a tweet, Mr Salvini spoke of “5 thousand cases at risk of infection for HIV, syphilis, meningitis, tuberculosis and scabies” due to clothes and blood-soaked bandages, but did not source this information.

Arrivals in Italy have registered a sharp fall. In the first half of August, there were 73% fewer arrivals than the same period last year.

Mr Salvini has taken credit for the drop, which he attributes to his crackdown on rescue ships providing a “taxi service” to migrants crossing from Lybia to the Italian shores. Experts including the International Organisation for Migration say there are various reasons for the drop, including the worsening humanitarian situation in Libya.

The UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet sent a team to Italy after "alarming" anti-migrant violence and the decision to prevent rescue ships from operating. “Italy’s decision to close its sea ports, denying entry to NGO rescue ships, had serious consequences on the most vulnerable. Even though we are seeing a big drop in the numbers of coming from Libya over the past 12 months, the numbers of those who died during the crossing is higher in the first six months of 2018 than it was,” Mrs Bachelet said.

Since coming to power in May, Mr Salvini has also launched a census of Italy’s Roma minority with a view to deportations and suggested that “ethnic” shops be closed at 9pm as a security measure.

A group of 200 Roma people living in the capital’s outskirts marched through the streets of Rome on Wednesday to protest the decision of the League’s mayor, Andrea Cassani, to expel the community and raze down the camp.

“Let’s find a compromise, we are available for an exchange but we cannot end up on the streets,” one member of the community told a local TV. “We are not Casamonica, we are poor people,” he added, referring to a mafia family whose properties were recently seized by the authorities.

Mr Salvini posted on social media the pictures of golden ovens and other eccentricities found in the seized houses. “I will be back in Rome on Monday with the scraper to take down another house owned by the Casamonica clan,” he said. Then, rehashing the motto used against migrants, the EU and the mafia alike, he said: “The free ride is over.”


Updated: November 22, 2018 05:19 PM