1,100 migrants in limbo as Italy shuts ports to rescue ships

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MILAN Two German-run rescue ships carrying almost 300 rescued persons were waiting off the eastern coast Sicily on Saturday. One vessel had permission to disembark the most vulnerable migrants, while the other requested a safe port despite “critical” conditions.

Chaos and uncertainty has resulted from the decision late Friday by Italy‘s far-right-led government to close its ports to humanitarian rescue ships.

Nearly 1,100 rescued migrants aboard four ships run by European charity organizations are stuck in the Mediterranean Sea, some with people rescued as long as two weeks ago amid deteriorating conditions on board.

Both ships Humanity 1 (run by separate German humanitarian groups) were in Italian waters seeking shelter from rough seas. The Humanity 1, carrying 179 migrants, has received permission to disembark minors and people needing medical care, but the Rise Above’s request for port for its 93 rescued people has so far gone unanswered.

As Saturday night fell, the Humanity 1 had not received any communication from Italy regarding evacuations.

The SOS charity Humanity challenged Italy’s decision to separate “vulnerable” migrants. They claimed that all of them were rescued at sea which is enough to qualify them for safe ports under international law.

Abourbakar Soumahoro (Italy’s only Black lawmaker in lower chamber) said that he would join the migrants on the ship if the Italian Premier Giorgia Maloni didn’t act quickly to help all those who were blocked at sea.

Interior minister Matteo Piantedosi stated Friday that the Humanity 1 would only be allowed to enter Italian waters for so long as it could disembark minors or people in urgent medical need.

The measure was approved after France and Germany each asked Italy to provide safe ports for migrants. They also indicated that they would accept some migrants to help alleviate the burden on Italy.

No similar provisions have been offered for the other three ships. The Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants and the Rise Above, have entered Italian waters without consent, despite repeated requests to have safe ports. The Ocean Viking carrying 234 migrants was still in international waters south of the Strait of Messina.

“We have been waiting for 10 days for a safe place to disembark the 572 survivors,” said Juan Mattias Gil, the head of mission for the Geo Barents. Riccardo Giatti, chief of Operation, said that many aboard were stressed due to the long time at sea.

SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1, alone said it had made 19 requests for a safe port, all unanswered. The boat is carrying 100 unaccompanied minors as well as infants as young as 7 months.

Italy’s far-right-led government insists that countries whose flags the charity-run ships fly must deal with the migrants. Piantedosi, speaking at a news conference on Friday, described such vessels as “islands”, which fall under the jurisdiction of flag countries.

Infrastructure Minister Matteo Salvini, known for his anti-migrant stance, cheered the new directive that he signed along with Italy’s defense and interior ministers.

“We stop being hostage to these foreign and private NGOs that organize the routes, the traffic, the transport and the migratory policies,” Salvini said in a Facebook video, repeating his allegation that the ships’ presence encourages smugglers.

Nongovernmental organizations reject that interpretation, and say they are obligated by the law of the sea to rescue people in distress and that coastal nations are obligated to provide a safe port as soon as feasible.

” The decree of the Italian minister for interior is undoubtedly illegal,” Mirka Schaefer (Advocacy Officer at SOS Humanity) said. “Pushing back refugees at the Italian border violates the Geneva Refugee Convention and international law. “

Most migrants have crossed Libya in unsuitable boats, hoping to find better lives in Europe. They are often subject to abuses by human traffickers.

While the humanitarian-run boats are denied safe ports, thousands of migrants have reached Italy’s shores in the last week. They arrived either in fishing boats on their own or were rescued by Italian authorities at sea. On Saturday, 147 arrived in Augusta, including 59 on the oil ship Zagara that also carried two bodies.

The situation on the Rise Above was particularly desperate, with 93 people packed aboard a relatively small 25-meter (82-foot) boat. Spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann said that the situation was “very critical” and that it led to tensions on board. This was because passengers saw land but didn’t understand why they weren’t docking.

Clemens Ledwa (head of mission) demanded that the vessel be anchored immediately due to bad weather and the small ship’s limited capacity.

” This is not a wish. He said Friday night, “This is everyone’s right.”


Emily Schultheis reported from Berlin.


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