Top Italian medical officer resigns over treatment of migrants

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The head of Italy's Medical Agency (AIFA) has resigned in protest against the government's hardline policy on the treatment of migrants, according to Italian media reports. Stefano Vella's move came in reaction to the protracted confinement of more than 150 migrants on the Diciotti, an Italian coastguard ship, which ended overnight.

"As a doctor, I cannot tolerate to lead a public health body at a time when people are treated in this way on our territory," Vella said in an overnight resignation statement to the ANSA news agency, as reported by dpa. Vella said that anyone who opposes the policies of hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini "should do it in the manner I am doing right now."

In a separate interview with yesterday's Corriere della Sera daily, Vella said his resignation was inevitable because he could not express his disagreement "with a tweet."

The Diciotti migrants were rescued on Aug. 16 and taken ashore four days later. But once at port, Salvini refused to let the migrants off the coast guard vessel Diciotti until other EU nations pledged to take the asylum-seekers, most of them young men from Eritrea.

Catholic bishops, Albania and Ireland agreed to take the 140 migrants blocked aboard an Italian coast guard vessel, Premier Giuseppe Conte said Saturday, announcing the end of 10-day standoff over the asylum-seekers but making clear an angry Italy could avenge a perceived lack of overall European Union solidarity by refusing to approve the bloc's next multi-year budget.

"Italy must take note that the spirit of solidarity is struggling to translate into concrete acts," Conte said in a statement, Reuters reported. Conte referred to declarations made at an EU summit in late June promising to help Italy and other Mediterranean countries deal with the burden of migrants rescued from human traffickers' unseaworthy boats.

In his role as head of a nearly three-month-old populist coalition government, Conte said Italy under current conditions "doesn't consider it possible to express adhesion to a proposed budget that underpins a policy so incoherent on the social level."

Earlier in the week, some in the government threatened to withhold nearly 20 billion euros ($23 billion) in contributions to the EU if member nations didn't volunteer to take the last group of rescued migrants reaching Italy. Brussels sharply reminded Italy it was legally obliged to pay.

A few hours before Conte's announcement, Italian Red Cross ambulances waiting at dockside took away six ill men, suspected of having tuberculosis, pneumonia or other infections, and seven of the 11 women who were still aboard. Authorities had said the women recounted how they had been raped while in Libya for months, awaiting the opportunity to leave in migrant smugglers' boats. Four other women chose not to leave the ship because their husbands were blocked aboard.

The standoff had prompted an impassioned appeal at the height of the standoff Saturday by the U.N. refugee agency's chief, who asked Italy to let the migrants disembark and urged EU countries to take responsibility for the asylum-seekers. In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said it's time to end a "race to the bottom on who can take the least responsibility for people rescued at sea." He urged European countries "to do the right thing and offer places of asylum for people rescued from the Mediterranean Sea in their time of need."

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