CATANIA, Sicily (AP) — Italian authorities prevented 35 migrants they deemed not vulnerable from getting off a humanitarian rescue ship in Sicily on Sunday as Italy’s new far-right government takes a hard line against charitable maritime rescue vessels operating in Italian waters.
Humanitarian groups and two Italian lawmakers who traveled to Sicily have protested the selection process as both illegal and inhumane. The procedure was part of guidelines introduced by new Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi as Italy again targets non-governmental organizations it has long accused of encouraging human trafficking in the central Mediterranean.
“Free everyone, free them,” Italian lawmaker Aboubakar Soumahoro said in a moving appeal to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni from the rescue ship Humanity 1, calling his government’s new policy “inhumane”.
The passengers faced “trauma, they faced everything we can define as prolonged suffering, hell,” Soumahoro said.
Italian authorities completed the process of identifying vulnerable migrants on the German-operated Humanity 1 overnight and asked the charity ship Geo Barents, which entered Italian waters with 572 rescued migrants, to surrender Sunday at the port of Catania for the same check.
Two other boats run by non-governmental organizations remained at sea with no immediate change in status.
Charity ships reported rescued people sleeping on floors and decks as infections spread causing fever and scabies, and running out of food and medical supplies. Some migrants have been on the ships for more than two weeks.
L’Humanité 1, carrying 179 rescued passengers, entered the Sicilian port at midnight on Saturday and two Italian doctors began identifying people in need of urgent medical attention after the ship’s doctor refused, the SOS spokesman said. Humanity, Wasil Schauseil.
SOS Humanité considers all passengers vulnerable by definition after being rescued at sea and deserving of safe harbor under international law.
Authorities first allowed three women and a baby off the ship, then a family followed by unaccompanied minorswhich numbered more than 100, Schauseil said.
“As we feared, not everyone was allowed to disembark,” Schauseil said.
“Doctors declared 36 people not in an emergency situation. After receiving the news, one person collapsed and lost consciousness and had to be transported by an ambulance,” Schauseil said.
“You can imagine the condition of the people. It is very devastating,” he said.
The Geo Barents, flying the Norwegian flag, carrying 572 migrants, was due to arrive in Catania early Sunday afternoon, Doctors Without Borders said. He entered Italian waters east of Sicily over the weekend for protection from stormy seas.
Two other ships carrying rescued migrants remained at sea.
The German Rise Above, carrying 93 people, sought a more protected position east of Sicily due to weather, but spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann said on Sunday the crew had received no communication from the Italian authorities.
Poschmann described the cramped conditions on the relatively small 25-meter vessel.
The Ocean Viking, operated by European charity SOS Méditerranée, with 234 migrants on board, remained in international waters, south of the Strait of Messina, and did not receive instructions to head to a port , said a spokesperson on Sunday. His first rescue was 16 days ago.
The divisive stance taken by Meloni’s government recalls the clashes orchestrated by Matteo Salvini, now Meloni’s infrastructure minister in charge of ports, during his brief stint in 2018-2019 as interior minister.
Italy’s new government insists on countries whose ships run by charities fly the flags must welcome immigrants.
In a Facebook video, Salvini repeated his claims that the presence of aid boats encourages smugglers.
Non-governmental organizations reject the government’s interpretation, saying they are bound by the law of the sea to rescue those in distress and that coastal nations are bound to provide safe harbor as soon as possible.
As humanitarian-run boats are denied a safe port, thousands more migrants have reached Italian shores over the past week, either alone or after being rescued at sea by Italian authorities. They make up 85% of all arrivals, according to Italy.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Emily Schultheis contributed from Berlin.
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