Welcoming Mayors Stand Up

Laura Colini

By Laura Colini, on June 14th, 2018

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International laws and conventions ignored

After rescue procedures were arranged by the Maritime Rescue and Coordination Center (MRCC) of Rome, the “Aquarius” boat (of SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders, with 629 people on board including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women) was prevented from disembarking in “a place of safety”.

The closest harbours were on the Italian coast, but international laws and agreements were ignored by the newly elected right-wing nationalist Ministry of Interior Matteo Salvini, declaring that all Italian ports were closed, in a decision backed by the Ministry of Infrastructure. People on board were exposed to maritime peril, psychological and physical distress without regard to their dignity, Bilder f¸r Wikipediasafety, medical care, hygiene or privacy in an overcrowded boat, putting their lives at risk.

The Aquarius impasse ended with Spain welcoming the boat (about 1000 km away, with yet more days at sea and risk to those still on board). The absurdity was made clear when the Aquarius was stuck 35 miles off the Italian coast, with the Italian Coast Guard allowing the disembarking of a migrants’ boat in Catania, and a rubber boat close to the cost of Libya rescued by a US naval vessel saving 41 people and collecting 12 dead bodies, struggling with not enough rescue boats available.

In practice the Italian government is illegally closing the harbour to humanitarian rescue boats, in defiance of international norms, a decision supported by xenophobic voices, but also many civic protests against (see the recent protest in the Italian cities of Rome, Palermo, Brescia, Messina and Milano).

This event has systemic implications and ramifications reverberating far beyond this blog. Indeed, it is a result of political failures in Europe, pointing to European authorities’ urgent need to restate the centrality of international laws and obligations in matters of asylum, and of cooperation among Member States.


Mayors stand up

Across this panorama, cities have few legal tools in this matter, but they play an important role in welcoming newcomers, in providing a place of safety, in implementing on-the-ground integration policies. Shameless denial of docking and disembarking in Italian seaports (by the Aquarius) has however ignited resistance among prominent Italian mayors—who’ve publicly taken a stand against the national government—speaking for major of cities in Southern Italy:

Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando

Leoluca Orlando“I am willing to welcome all the ships that save human lives. Palermo, the city that from its own name is ‘a whole port’, has been and will always be ready to welcome the ships, civil or military, committed to saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Those ships and those men who respect the law of the sea and international law, avoiding the deaths of men, women and children who someone would like to deliver into the hands of international criminality. Who is violating the international law, the one that imposes the priority of saving lives, is the Italian Minister of the Interior who has further demonstrated the cultural nature of the extreme right-wing Northern League (Lega Nord). Palermo is ‘racist’ because we think that there is only one race, the human race. Who does not understand it is a Nazi criminal. We will denounce the government if its behavior should continue to be this. Palermo is ready to welcome all the ships that save lives”.

Outgoing Mayor of Messina, Renato Accorinti, member of URBACT Arrival Cities network

Renato_Accorinti“I am ‘shocked’ both from a humanitarian point of view and from the ‘laws of the sea’. We can’t forget of the universal human rights and the right of navigation in which the human being is sacred regardless of the color of the skin and the country of ‘origin. It is a primary duty to welcome people and to a dehumanizing policy we answer with a policy made up of people’s rights and values. For this reason, in spite of the dictates of Minister Salvini, the Accorinti administration declares its immediate availability so that the ship Aquarius can dock at the city port”.

Mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris

“If a heartless minister lets pregnant women, children, the elderly, human beings die at sea, the port of Naples is ready to welcome them. We are human, with a big heart. Naples is ready, without money to save lives. Salvini took a brutal decision against all national and international laws. Just as, if confirmed, the declaration of extraneousness of the Maltese government seems to us to be wrong. Against the brutal decisions that jeopardize human lives and against the ‘passes of the buck’, Naples, a solidarity city that has always been sided with those who ask to be helped, takes a clear position: let’s open the seaport, let’s organize immediately aid and assistance. For us human life continues to have an absolute value, without distinction of skin color”.

Mayor of Trapani, Giacomo Tranchida (newly elected)

“We are available to welcome the Aquarius ship and we are available to face any future emergency concerning migrants and rescues at sea. Trapani is at he same time a door and and port of the Mediterranean Sea, it will not be Salvini to influence our history. Sharing responsibility with other ports – starting from the one in Palermo that said it is willing to welcome ships of migrants – we will continue to offer a support service, together with the other authorities, including the port authority”.

Mayor of Taranto, Rinaldo Melucci

“I am ready to embrace every life in danger, without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. At sea there are international laws and customs that can’t be cancelled with a simple internal memo. On the political field, however, for me we are talking about human lives that always have priority over political and regulatory measures. Ours has always been a land of welcome, I really do not know how to reject 629 human lives”.

Mayor of Reggio Calabria, Giuseppe Falcomatà

“We are available as always in front of women, men and children who need help. Our heart is big. Bigger than those who want to speculate without a shred of humanity”.


Can these urban voices influence the wider debate on abiding with international laws, and the role of European authorities in matters of rescuing lives at sea?

refugees welcome madridMany other officials throughout Italy have likewise responded in solidarity, like Livorno, Ravenna, Torino, Milano, Sapri, Augusta and many more. However, these expressions of solidarity come to little according to a representative of Doctors Without Borders, when “mayors’ remarks [are] ‘nice but not practical’ because it was standard practice to wait for the Italian coastguard, which is under the control of the Italian government, to allow a ship to dock”. (The Guardian)

In the end, can these urban voices influence the wider debate on abiding with international laws, and the role of European authorities in matters of rescuing lives at sea?

Probably not, since it is prominently a battle which regards international agreements, laws and conventions, the states and European Institutions.

The EU Urban Agenda inclusion of Migrants and refugees, the solidarity cities EUROCITIES initiative, the commitment of EU programmes such URBACT with Arrival cities network—as much as the individual stories of committed small and large cities as Riace, Ghent, Barcelona, Gdansk, Messina, Palermo, Amsterdam, Athens, Thessaloniki, Vantaa, and many others— are very diverse and with different scopes but show a new groundswell of cities engaging in this international debate, urging larger determination in a grander call for change.

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