1,100 Migrants in Limbo as Italy Shuts Ports to Rescue Ships

Two German-run migrant rescue ships carrying nearly 300 rescued people were waiting off the eastern coast of Sicily Saturday, one with permission to disembark its most vulnerable migrants while the other ship’s request for a safe port has gone unanswered despite “critical” conditions on board.

The situation describes the chaos and uncertainty resulting from the decision by Italy’s far-right-led government to close its ports to humanitarian rescue ships.

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

Both the Humanity 1 and Rise Above ships, run by separate German humanitarian groups, were in Italian waters: the Humanity 1 carrying 179 migrants has received permission to disembark minors and people needing medical care, but the Rise Above’s request for port for its 93 rescued people has so far gone unanswered.

By Saturday afternoon, there was still no word on when the Humanity 1 evacuations might start, or on safe ports for the other ships.

The SOS Humanity charity challenged Italy’s move to distinguish “vulnerable” migrants, saying they were rescued at sea, which alone qualifies them for a safe port under international law.

Italy’s only Black lawmaker in the lower chamber, Aboubakar Soumahoro, said he would join migrants on the ship if Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni’s government did not act soon to aid all those blocked at sea.

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, and both the Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants, and the Rise Above have entered Italian waters without consent despite repeated requests for a safe port. The Ocean Viking with 234 migrants remained in international waters, south of the Strait of Messina.

“We have been waiting for 10 days for a safe place to disembark the 572 survivors,” Juan Mattias Gil, the head of mission for the Geo Barents said. Operation chief Riccardo Gatti said besides suffering from skin and respiratory infections, many on board were stressed by the prolonged period at sea.

SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1, alone said it had made 19 requests for a safe port, all unanswered. The boat is carrying 100 unaccompanied minors as well as infants as young as 7 months old.

Italy’s new far-right-led 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 as interior minister from 2018-19, 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.

Nongovernmental organizations stridently oppose that interpretation, and say they are obligated by the law of the sea to rescue people in distress, no matter how they learn of their plight, 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,” says 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 being subjected to torture 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.

The situation on the Rise Above was particularly desperate, with 93 people packed aboard the relatively small 25-meter boat. Spokesperson 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 also bad weather and the limited capacity of the small ship.

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

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