Italy seizes migrant rescue boat Mare Jonio

A rescue boat carrying nearly 50 migrants has docked at the Italian island of Lampedusa. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had denied the ship access to Italian ports, but relented in order to bring aid workers to trial.

Sicilian prosecutors on Tuesday ordered the seizure of the Italian-flagged ship "Mare Jonio." The rescue boat was allowed to dock at the Italian island of Lampedusa while accompanied by coast guard ships, following nearly two days at sea.

The decision ended a standoff between the migrant rescue boat and the Italian government. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had earlier ordered authorities to deny the ship access to Italian ports.

Before issuing the permit to dock, prosecutors launched an investigation into possible aiding and abetting of illegal immigration, a move Salvini praised. 

"Now in Italy there is a government that defends the borders and ensures respect for the law, most of all for human traffickers," he said. "He who makes mistakes, pays."

The group of 49 migrants, including 12 minors, were rescued by humanitarian group Mediterranea Saving Humans. "Those on board had been at sea for almost two days," the NGO said in a statement. "(They) are exhausted and dehydrated."

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

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Outsourcing border controls to Africa

'Repressive'

Salvini has come under fire for attempting to block migrant rescue boats from docking at Italian ports. 

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International last year accused the Italian government of "repressive management of the migratory phenomenon."

Italy has taken the brunt of a wave of migration after EU member states cut off the so-called Balkan route. Nearly half a million irregular migrants have made the dangerous journey across the central Mediterranean and made landfall in Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Rome has conceded that saving lives at sea is a priority, but maintains that national authorities must be obeyed and premeditated action to bring immigrants to Italy would amount to facilitating human trafficking.

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Italy, with the support of the EU, has trained the Libyan coast guard to intercept boats carrying migrants in a bid to prevent migrants from reaching European shores.

Read more:Follow the money: What are the EU's migration policy priorities? 

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Fleeing war and poverty

In late 2014, with the war in Syria approaching its fourth year and Islamic State making gains in the north of the country, the exodus of Syrians intensified. At the same time, others were fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Niger and Kosovo.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Seeking refuge over the border

Vast numbers of Syrian refugees had been gathering in border-town camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan since 2011. By 2015, with the camps full to bursting and residents often unable to find work or educate their children, more and more people decided to seek asylum further afield.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

A long journey on foot

In 2015 an estimated 1.5 million people made their way on foot from Greece towards western Europe via the "Balkan route". The Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel within much of the EU, was called into question as refugees headed towards the wealthier European nations.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Desperate sea crossings

Tens of thousands of refugees were also attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats. In April 2015, 800 people of various nationalities drowned when a boat traveling from Libya capsized off the Italian coast. This was to be just one of many similar tragedies - by the end of the year, nearly 4,000 refugees were reported to have died attempting the crossing.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Pressure on the borders

Countries along the EU's external border struggled to cope with the sheer number of arrivals. Fences were erected in Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia and Austria. Asylum laws were tightened and several Schengen area countries introduced temporary border controls.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Closing the open door

Critics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open-door" refugee policy claimed it had made the situation worse by encouraging more people to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe. By September 2016, Germany had also introduced temporary checks on its border with Austria.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Striking a deal with Turkey

In early 2016, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement under which refugees arriving in Greece could be sent back to Turkey. The deal has been criticized by human rights groups and came under new strain following a vote by the European Parliament in November to freeze talks on Turkey's potential accession to the EU.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

No end in sight

With anti-immigration sentiment in Europe growing, governments are still struggling to reach a consensus on how to handle the continuing refugee crisis. Attempts to introduce quotas for the distribution of refugees among EU member states have largely failed. Conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere show no signs coming to an end, and the death toll from refugee sea crossings is on the rise.

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ls,ta/rt (AP, AFP)