Migrants are seen onboard the charity ship Lifeline at Boiler Wharf in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Malta June 27, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

As an American living in Italy, I feel almost choked by despair. The country of my parents ripped young children from their parents and put them in cages. The country of my children is condemning people to drown in the Mediterranean.

Over 200 people have drowned or gone missing off the Libyan coast in the last three days, including young babies, bringing the death toll so far this year to over 1,000.

The new Italian government closed its ports to rescue boats in June. After years of laudable efforts to save lives in the Central Mediterranean, the Italian state-run Maritime Rescue Coordination Center is denying any further responsibility, insisting Libyan coast guard forces are in charge or that the countries where rescue ships are registered should take responsibility.  

Migrants and refugees are already exploited by unscrupulous smugglers who pack them into unseaworthy vessels. Confusion, uncertainty, and delays by the European Union contribute to loss of life at sea.

In a devastating chain reaction, Malta – which is host to many asylum seekers, but studiously avoids responsibility for rescues and disembarkation – is aping Italy’s hardline approach. After 200 people floated adrift at sea on the Mission Lifeline rescue boat for five days, Malta finally allowed survivors to disembark – only to place the captain under investigation.

Malta has since also refused the rescue group Proactiva’s request to refuel, and is blocking another rescue organization, Sea-Watch, from leaving port.

At a migration summit last week, EU leaders agreed on little except to further empower Libyan coast guard forces to intercept boats in international waters and tell NGO rescue boats not to intervene. Never mind that everyone taken back to Libya is locked up in horrific prisons where they face filthy conditions and risk torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and extortion.

I want my three sons to be proud of their two countries. I tell them about the outrage across America over the caging of children that forced the Trump administration to change its policy. I talk about the compassionate European volunteers trying to save lives at sea.

I hope to tell them soon that European leaders have pledged to support European rescue operations at sea and share responsibility for disembarking rescued people on European soil, and then to sort out humanely – on dry land – who needs protection and who may be safely returned home.