MILAN – Italy allowed a humanitarian rescue ship carrying 179 migrants to enter a Sicilian port and begin disembarking minors early Sunday, while refusing to respond to requests for safe harbor from three other ships carrying 900 more people in nearby waters.
Italy's new far-right-led government has closed its ports to rescue ship run by non-governmental groups and insists that the countries whose flag the ships fly must take in the migrants. It granted the Humanity 1 alone access to port to land minors and people needing medical attention.
Officials at the German-run charity that operates the Humanity 1 challenged Italy’s move to distinguish “vulnerable” migrants, saying all were rescued at sea and that alone qualifies them for a safe port under international law.
Italy’s only Black lawmaker in the lower chamber, Abourbakar Soumahoro, met the Humanity 1 at the port in Catania and decried the government's closure of ports to NGO ships as a “shame.”
“Right now, in the port of Catania there is a selective disembarkation under way,” Soumahoro said on Twitter. “Worn bodies of castaways already exhausted by cold, fatigue, trauma and torture are considered objects by the government of Giorgia Meloni.”
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said Friday that the Humanity 1 would be allowed in Italian waters only long enough to disembark minors and people in need of urgent medical care.
The measure was approved after Germany and France each called on Italy to grant a safe port to the migrants, and indicated they would receive some of the migrants so Italy wouldn't bear the burden alone.
No such provisions have been offered to the other three ships. The Norway-flagged Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants, and the German-run Rise Above with 93 entered Italian waters east of Sicily this weekend to seek protection from storm-swollen seas, but without receiving consent from Italy or a response to repeated requests for a safe port.
The Ocean Viking, operated by the European charity SOS Mediteranee, with 234 migrants on board, remained in international waters, south of the Strait of Messina. Is requests for a port also unanswered.
“We have been waiting for 10 days for a safe place to disembark the 572 survivors," said Juan Mattias Gil, head of mission for the Geo Barents, which is operated by Doctors without Borders. Operation chief Riccardo Gatti said that besides suffering from skin and respiratory infections, many on board were stressed by the prolonged period at sea.
SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1, said it had made 19 requests for a safe port, all unanswered. The boat was carrying 100 unaccompanied minors as well as infants as young as 7 months, it said.
Italy’s new government is insisting that countries whose flag the charity-run ships fly must take on the migrants. Speaking at a news conference late Friday, Piantedosi described such vessels as “islands” that are under the jurisdiction of the 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 that 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 Italian minister of interior’s decree is undoubtedly illegal,” sas Mirka Schaefer, advocacy officer at SOS Humanity. “Pushing back refugees at the Italian border violates the Geneva Refugee Convention and international law."
Most have traveled via Libya, where they set off in unseaworthy boats seeking a better life in Europe, often facing abuses by human traffickers along the way.
While the humanitarian-run boats are being denied a safe port, thousands of migrants have reached Italian shores over the last week, either on their own in fishing boats or rescued at sea by Italian authorities. On Saturday, 147 arrived in Augusta, including 59 on the oil ship Zagara that also carried two bodies.
The situation on the Rise Above, operated by the German NGO Mission Lifeline, was said to be particularly desperate, with 93 people packed aboard a relatively small 25-meter (82-foot) boat.
Spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann described a “very critical situation that ... led to very great tensions” on board, because passengers saw land and didn’t understand why they weren’t docking.
The head of mission on the vessel, Clemens Ledwa, demanded a port of safety immediately, 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.
Emily Schultheis reported from Berlin.
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