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Italians debate whether rescuing migrants at sea can be a crime


The Iuventa, a migrant rescue ship run by the German organization Jugend Rettet, is docked for inspection Aug. 2 in Italy's Lampedusa harbor. Jugend Rettet, which refused to sign the Italian government code of conduct for migrant rescue ships, is under investigation for aiding illegal immigration. (CNS photo/Elio Desiderio, EPA)

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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As temperatures heated up in Italy in late July and August, so did the debate over migration policy and, particularly, over the rescue of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Italian officials are investigating an Eritrean Catholic priest and a German humanitarian organization on suspicion of "aiding and abetting illegal migration," but overcrowded and unseaworthy boats carrying migrants and refugees continue to make their way toward Italy's shores.

For years Italy has been the first port of call for refugees and migrants desperate to reach Europe and, as Pope Francis often has noted, the country has received little help from its European Union partners in rescuing, caring for and processing the newcomers.

The EU's 2013 Dublin Accord stipulates that requests for asylum and migrant processing must be handled by the first EU country a migrant or refugee enters. Because of its geographical proximity to Libya -- the primary port of departure to Europe -- Italy usually is that first country, although Malta also is a frontline destination.

In late July, Italy's prime minister announced an agreement with the Libyan government to have Italian military ships join Libyan ships in patrolling the Libyan coast. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the aim was to halt human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Migrants pay criminals for a place on the boats.

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