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UNHCR appeals to Italy not to impede migrant rescue boats in central Mediterranean

The head of the UN refugee agency on Friday said he has urged Italy not to unnecessarily impede NGOs that operate migrant rescue ships in the central Mediterranean, as warmer weather is expected to bring the usual seasonal uptick in the departure of smugglers’ boats from Libya.

Charity boats “fill an important void” in the absence of collective EU efforts, Filippo Grandi told reporters, a day after meeting with Italian Premier Mario Draghi and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. He meets Friday with Pope Francis.

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Charities that operate the boats complain that safety measures required by Italy are tantamount to blocking their operations.

“We need to find a balance,’’ Grandi said. “On the one side, it is clear the rescues at sea need to be carried out, also by NGOs, following safety criteria. On the other hand, there shouldn’t be requests for excessive measures that impede this essential effort by the NGOs to save people who are crossing.”

“I completely disagree with any attempt to penalize the NGOs for what they are doing. It is a precious and vital job,’’ Grandi added. He said there was no evidence that the presence of the boats encourages more departures, as critics of the rescues claim.

Italy currently has blocked the ship Sea-Watch 3 in Sicily, while the Alan Kurdi, which had been blocked in Sardinia, has been allowed to travel to Spain for routine maintenance while proceedings on the administrative measure are pending. The boats are operated respectively by the Sea Watch and Sea-Eye humanitarian groups, both based in Germany.

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