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Italian tugboat sails to Libya's coast to help migrants

Mare Jonio is sailing to Libya in defiance of Italy's anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini
International Organisation for Migration says about 15,000 migrants have drowned in Mediterranean since 2015 (AFP)

A new migrant assistance ship was headed for the waters off Libya on Thursday after similar vessels were prevented from trying to rescue people seeking to make the perilous journey to Europe.

"The #MareJonio is on its way!" German NGO Sea-Watch tweeted. 

"In cooperation with #Mediterranea we are back at sea, to keep a sharp lookout and to challenge the European policy of letting people drown."

The Mare Jonio is a tugboat flying the Italian flag, which left Augusta in Sicily on Wednesday evening, headed for international waters to the south, according to maritime tracking websites.

The 37-metre vessel is not intended to rescue migrants and bring them to a safe port, but to spot people-carrying boats that are in distress, AFP reported.

“We want to affirm a principle of humanity that right-wing policies seem to have forgotten,” crew member Erasmo Palazzotto told the Guardian.

Challenge to Italy's far-right minister

The boat’s journey to Libya’s coast is a direct challenge to far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who instituted a policy that closed off Italian ports to ships carrying migrants and asylum seekers.

In August, Salvini closed a port to an Italian coastguard ship carrying 177 people. The rescued passengers were forced to stay on the ship for almost a week until the government reopened the port.

The Mediterranea collective of aid groups and associations bought and refitted the tugboat, its members told journalists in Rome.

It will provide a civilian presence in an area where they say the Libyan coastguard and international military vessels are failing to rescue people.

Those operating the boat, which is also carrying Italian writers and politicians, want to "conquer fear and distrust with solidarity and humanity," said Ada Talarico of the Mediterranea collective.

"We want to save ourselves from a present and future of hatred and intolerance," she said.

Mediterranea said that the boat's mission is motivated by "moral disobedience and civil obedience".

The Mare Jonio will be accompanied by a smaller boat carrying members of the associations and journalists and will coordinate with Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms' Astral sailboat, which left Spain a few days ago on a similar mission.

The collective borrowed money from the Banca Etica with the associations and left-wing politicians as guarantors. The collective has launched a crowdfunding appeal to repay the current budget of about 700,000 euros.

The International Organisation for Migration says about 15,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2015. 

During the same period, Italy has received 600,000 migrants and asylum seekers on its coast, while other European nations have closed their borders.

Italy's former centre-left government tried to stem the flow of people by working with the Libyan authorities and limiting the NGO effort.

Salvini, who came to power in June as part of a populist government, has since closed Italian ports to civilian and military boats that have rescued people, saying Italy bears an unfair share of the migrant burden.