Italy closed its ports to rescue the boat, leaving 1,100 migrants in limbo

MILAN (AP) – Two German-run migrant rescue ships carrying nearly 300 rescued people waited off the eastern coast of Sicily on Saturday, one with permission to disembark the most vulnerable migrants while the other’s plea for safe harbor went unanswered despite the “critical situation” on the ship.

Chaos and uncertainty has resulted from the decision late Friday by Italy’s far-right-led government to close the port to rescue ships.

Nearly 1,100 migrants were rescued on four ships run by a European charity stuck in the Mediterranean Sea, some rescued over the past two weeks amid dire conditions on board.

Both Humanity 1 and Rise Above, run by a separate German humanitarian group, are in Italian waters, both seeking shelter from rough seas. The Humanity 1, carrying 179 migrants, has received permission to escort minors and people in need of medical care, but Rise Above’s request for a port for the 93 rescued people has so far not been answered.

As darkness fell on Saturday, Humanity 1 still had not received direct communication from Italian authorities about the evacuation, spokesman Wasil Schauseil said.

The SOS Humanity charity challenged Italy’s move to single out “vulnerable” migrants, saying that all were rescued at sea, which itself provided them with a safe harbor under international law.

The only Black Italian MP in the lower house, Abourbakar Soumahoro, said he would follow the migrants on board if the government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni did not quickly help all those blocked at sea.

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

The measure was approved after Germany and France each called on Italy to provide safe harbor to migrants, and indicated that they would accept some migrants so that Italy would not bear the burden alone.

No such provision has been offered to three other ships, and both Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants, and the rise above has entered Italian waters without permission despite repeated requests for a safe port. The Viking Ocean with 234 migrants remains 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 launch the 572 survivors,” said Juan Mattias Gil, head of mission for Geo Barents. Chief operating officer Riccardo Gatti said in addition to skin infections and respiratory infections, many on board were stressed by the prolonged time at sea.

SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1, itself said it had made 19 requests for safe harbor, all of which went unanswered. The boat was carrying 100 unaccompanied minors as well as a 7-month-old baby.

Italy’s new far-right-led government has insisted that countries that flag charity ships must arrest migrants. Speaking at a news conference late Friday, Piantedosi described the ship as an “island” under the jurisdiction of flag states.

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

“We stop being hostages to these foreign and private NGOs that manage routes, traffic, transport and migration policy,” Salvini said in a Facebook video, repeating accusations that the presence of ships encourages smugglers.

Non-governmental organizations rejected that interpretation, saying they were obliged by the law of the sea to rescue people in distress and that coastal states were obliged to provide safe harbors as soon as possible.

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“The Italian Interior Minister’s decision is undoubtedly illegal,” said Mirka Schaefer, advocacy officer at SOS Humanity. “Pushing back refugees at the Italian border violates the Geneva Convention on Refugees and international law.”

Most have traveled through Libya, where they set off on unfit boats in search of a better life in Europe, often facing abuse by human traffickers along the way.

As humanitarian boats are denied safe harbor, thousands of migrants have reached Italian shores in the past week, either alone on fishing boats or rescued at sea by Italian authorities. On Saturday, 147 arrived in Augusta, including 59 on the oil tanker Zagara which also carried two crews.

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

The head of the mission on board, Clemens Ledwa, demanded an immediate port of safety, citing bad weather and the limited capacity of the small ship.

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

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Emily Schultheis reported from Berlin.

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