CATANIA, Sicily (AP) — The captain of a charity-run migrant rescue ship defied Italian orders to leave a Sicilian port Sunday after authorities refused to let the 35 migrants on board disembark — part of a directive. by Italy’s new far-right-led government targeting foreign-flagged rescue ships.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s two-week-old government denied safe harbor to four ships operating in the Mediterranean that rescued migrants at sea in distress, some up to 16 days ago, and only those identified as vulnerable to disembarkation.
On Sunday, Italy ordered Humanitarian 1 to evacuate the port of Catania after disembarking 144 rescued migrants, including children, more than 100 unaccompanied minors. and people with medical emergencies.
But the captain refused to comply “until all survivors rescued from distress at sea have been disembarked,” said SOS Humanity, the German charity that operates the ship. The ship remained moored at the port with 35 migrants on board.
Later Sunday, the second charity ship arrived in Catania, and the vetting process continued with 572 migrants aboard the Geo Barents ship operated by Doctors Without Borders. The selection was completed by evening, with 357 allowed to leave but 215 people blocked on board.
The family was the first to leave the ship. A man holding a baby said his thanks, “Thank you, Geo Barents, thank you,” as he left. Another man in a wheelchair was brought down by Red Cross workers.
But two other ships operated by non-governmental organizations remain stuck at sea and no port is willing to accept the rescued people.
Humanitarian groups, human rights activists and two Italian parliamentarians who traveled to Sicily protested the election process as illegal and inhumane. Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Piantedosi targeted non-governmental organizations, which Italy has long accused of encouraging people-trafficking in the central Mediterranean. The group denied the claim.
“Free all the people, free them,” Italian lawmaker Aboubakar Soumahoro said in an emotional appeal directed at Meloni from the Humanity 1 rescue ship.
The passengers have faced “trauma, they have faced everything we can define as prolonged suffering,” said Soumahoro, who spent the night on board.
Later at the port, he accused Meloni of playing politics at the expense of “newborns, women, people who have suffered traumas of all kinds,” including torture in Libyan prisons.
He said that translators or psychologists were not present in the Italian election process and many immigrants from Gambia, could not speak French, English or Italian.
“It’s their mistake to speak another language. Their mistake is to have another color,” Soumahoro said, accusing the Italian government of using migrants to distract from other problems, including high energy prices.
On board Humanity 1, doctors in Italy identified people in need of urgent medical care after the ship’s doctors refused to vote, SOS Humanity spokesman Wasil Schauseil said. Thirty-six people were declared non-vulnerable and were not allowed to disembark, causing one to collapse and be taken away by ambulance.
“You can imagine the situation of the people. It is very bad,” he said.
Both SOS Humanity and Doctors Without Borders issued statements saying all passengers were vulnerable after being rescued at sea, and deserved safe harbor under international law. SOS Humanity said it plans to file a civil case in Catania to ensure that all 35 survivors on board have access to formal asylum procedures on land.
Doctors Without Borders stressed that “rescue operations are considered complete only when all survivors are dropped off in a safe place.”
Two other charity ships carrying rescued migrants remain stuck at sea, with people sleeping on floors and decks and spreading respiratory infections and scabies as food and medical supplies dwindle.
The German-run Rise Above, carrying 93 rescued at sea, sought a more protected position in the eastern waters of Sicily due to the weather, but spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann said Sunday that the crew has not received any communication from the Italian authorities.
Poschmann described the cramped conditions in the relatively small 25-meter (82-foot) boat.
Samudra Viking, operated by the European charity SOS Mediteranee, with 234 migrants on board, remains in international waters, south of the Strait of Messina, and has not received instructions to proceed to an Italian port, said a spokesman on Sunday. His first rescue was 16 days ago.
“Agitation is evident among survivors,” a charity worker named Morgane told The Associated Press on Sunday. Cases of seasickness are on the rise after high waves tossed boats around overnight.
“Now, the weather is very bad, bringing strong winds, rough seas and rain on deck. … these extreme conditions add to the suffering,” he said.
The confrontational attitude taken by Meloni’s government is reminiscent of the standoffs organized by Matteo Salvini, currently Meloni’s infrastructure minister in charge of ports, during his brief 2018-2019 tenure as interior minister. Italy’s new government is forcing countries to fly the flag of charity ships must take in migrants.
In a Facebook video, Salvini repeated accusations that the presence of humanitarian boats encourages smugglers..
Non-governmental organizations rejected the claim, 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.
Amnesty International called Italy’s attitude “disgraceful”.
“Italy legitimately expects other EU member states to share responsibility for asylum seekers, but this does not justify actions that only increase the suffering of already traumatized people,” the group said.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Emily Schultheis contributed from Berlin and Angela Charlton from Paris.
Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration