Crew members of NGO rescue ship 'Ocean Viking' give lifejackets to migrants in the Mediterranean Sea

Italy closes ports to save ships, leaving 1,100 migrants in limbo

MILAN (AP) — Two German-led migrant rescue ships carrying nearly 300 rescued people waited off the east coast of Sicily on Saturday, one with permission to disembark its most vulnerable migrants while the The other’s request for a safe harbor went unanswered despite “critical conditions on board.

Chaos and uncertainty resulted from the decision on Friday night by the far-right Italian government to close its ports to humanitarian relief ships.

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

The Humanity 1 and Rise Above ships, operated by separate German aid groups, were in Italian waters, both seeking shelter from rough seas. Humanity 1, carrying 179 migrants, has been cleared to disembark minors and people in need of medical attention, but the request to port the Rise Above for its 93 rescued people has so far gone unanswered.

By the time darkness fell on Saturday, Humanity 1 had still not received direct communications from Italian authorities regarding the evacuations, spokesman Wasil Schauseil said.

Charity SOS Humanity has challenged Italy’s decision to single out “vulnerable” migrants, saying all were rescued at sea, which alone qualifies them for safe harbor under international law.

Italy’s only black lawmaker in the lower house, Abourbakar Soumahoro, said he would join the migrants on the ship if Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government did not act quickly to help all those stranded at sea.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said on Friday that the Humanity 1 would only be allowed in Italian waters long enough to disembark minors and people in need of urgent medical attention.

The measure was approved after Germany and France each called on Italy to provide a safe harbor for migrants and said they would take in some of the migrants so Italy would not bear the burden alone.

No such arrangement was offered to the other three vessels, and the Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants, and the Rise Above entered Italian waters without consent despite repeated requests for safe harbor. The Ocean Viking with 234 migrants remained in international waters, south of the Strait of Messina.

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“We have been waiting for 10 days for a safe place to disembark the 572 survivors,” said Juan Mattias Gil, the Geo Barents mission leader. Chief operating officer Riccardo Gatti said that in addition to suffering skin and respiratory infections, many passengers on board were stressed by the long time at sea.

SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1, said it alone made 19 safe port requests, all of which went unanswered. The boat carries 100 unaccompanied minors as well as babies from the age of 7 months.

Italy’s new far-right-led government insists countries whose flagged vessels run by charities must crack down on migrants. Speaking at a press conference on Friday evening, Piantedosi described these vessels as “islands” which are under the jurisdiction of the flag countries.

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

“We stop being hostages to these foreign and private NGOs that organize roads, traffic, transport and migration policies,” Salvini said in a video on Facebook, reiterating his allegation that the presence of the ships encourages the smugglers.

Non-governmental organizations reject this interpretation and say they are bound by the law of the sea to rescue people in distress and that coastal nations are bound to provide safe harbor as soon as possible.

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“The decree of the Italian interior minister is undoubtedly illegal,” says Mirka Schaefer, advocacy officer at SOS Humanité. “Returning refugees to the Italian border violates the Geneva Refugee Convention and international law.”

Most traveled via Libya, where they set out on unseaworthy boats in search of a better life in Europe, often facing abuse from human traffickers along the way.

As aid-run boats are denied safe harbor, thousands of migrants have reached Italian shores over the past week, either alone in fishing boats or rescued at sea by Italian authorities. On Saturday, 147 people arrived in Augusta, including 59 on the oil tanker Zagara which was also carrying two bodies.

The situation on the Rise Above was particularly desperate, with 93 people crammed aboard a relatively small 25-meter (82-foot) boat. Spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann described a “very critical situation which…resulted in very great tension” on board, as passengers saw land and did not understand why they were not docking.

The ship’s chief of staff, Clemens Ledwa, demanded safe harbor immediately, citing bad weather and the small vessel’s limited capacity.

“It’s not a wish. It’s everyone’s right,’ he said on Friday night.


Emily Schultheis reported from Berlin.

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