The captain of a charity-operated migrant rescue ship has refused Italian orders to leave a Sicilian port after authorities refused to let 35 migrants disembark
By COLLEEN BARRY and SALVATORE CAVALLI Associated Press
CATANIA, Sicily — The captain of a charity-run migrant rescue ship refused Italian orders to leave a Sicilian port Sunday after authorities refused to let 35 of the migrants on his ship disembark — part of directives by Italy’s new far-right-led government targeting foreign-flagged rescue ships.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni’s two-week-old government is refusing safe port to four ships operating in the central Mediterranean that have rescued migrants at sea in distress, some as many as 16 days ago, and is allowing only those identified as vulnerable to disembark.
On Sunday, Italy ordered the Humanity 1 to vacate the port of Catania after disembarking 144 rescued migrants, including with children, more than 100 unaccompanied minors and people with medical emergencies.
But its 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 vessel remained moored at the port with 35 migrants on board.
Later Sunday, a second charity ship arrived in Catania, and the vetting process was being repeated with the 572 migrants aboard the Geo Barents ship operated by Doctors Without Borders. The selection was completed by late evening, with 357 allowed off but 215 people blocked on board.
Families were the first to leave the ship. One man cradling a baby expressed his gratitude, saying “Thank you, Geo Barents, thank you,” as he left. Another man in a wheelchair was carried down by Red Cross workers.
Yet two other boats run by non-governmental organizations remained stuck at sea with no port willing to accept the people they rescued.
Humanitarian groups, human rights activists and two Italian lawmakers who traveled to Sicily protested the selection process as illegal and inhumane. Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi is targeting non-governmental organizations, which Italy has long accused of encouraging people trafficking in the central Mediterranean Sea. The groups deny 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 that we can define as prolonged suffering,” said Soumahoro, who spent the night on the ship.
Later at the port, he accused Meloni of playing politics at the expense of “newborns, of women, of people who have suffered traumas of all kinds,” including torture in Libyan prisons.
He said neither translators nor psychologists were on hand during Italy’s selection process and many of the migrants were from Gambia, unable to speak French, English or Italian.
“Their fault is to speak another language. Their fault is to have another color,” Soumahoro said, accusing the Italian government of using the migrants to distract from other issues, including high energy prices.
Aboard the Humanity 1, doctors in Italy identified people needing urgent medical care after the ship’s doctor refused to make a selection, said SOS Humanity spokesman Wasil Schauseil. Thirty-six people were declared non-vulnerable and were not permitted to disembark, prompting one to collapse and be taken away by an ambulance.
“You can imagine the condition of the people. It is very devastating,″ he said.
Both SOS Humanity and Doctors Without Borders released statements claiming that all of their passengers were in need of a safe port in accordance with international law and were vulnerable after being saved at sea. In order to guarantee that all 35 survivors on board have access to official asylum procedures on land, SOS Humanity said it intends to file a civil case in Catania.
A rescue operation is only deemed successful when all survivors have disembarked in a secure location, stressed Doctors Without Borders.
As food and medical supplies ran out, people were forced to sleep on the floors and decks of two other charity ships carrying rescued migrants and were spreading scabies and respiratory infections.
Due to bad weather, the German-operated Rise Above, carrying 93 people who had been saved at sea, sought a safer location in the waters east of Sicily. However, spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann said on Sunday that the crew had not heard from Italian authorities.
Poschmann described the crowded conditions on board the 25-meter (82-foot) ship, which is rather small.
The SOS Mediteranee vessel Ocean Viking, which had 234 migrants on board, remained in international waters south of the Strait of Messina on Sunday and did not receive instructions to head to an Italian port, a spokesman said. It has 16 days since its first rescue.
According to Morgane, a charity worker, “Agitation is evident among the survivors,” she told The Associated Press on Sunday. After large waves rocked the ship all night, seasickness cases were on the rise.
Strong winds, choppy seas, and rain on deck caused “considerable weather degradation today, adding suffering,” she said.
The confrontational approach taken by Meloni’s administration is reminiscent of the confrontations that Matteo Salvini, who is now Meloni’s infrastructure minister and is in charge of ports, orchestrated during his brief tenure as interior minister in 2018–2019. The migrants must be accepted by the nations whose flags the charity-operated ships fly, according to Italy’s new government.
Salvini reiterated his claims that the humanitarian boats’ presence encourages smugglers in a Facebook video.
Nongovernmental organizations dispute that assertion, arguing that they are required by maritime law to save those in need and that coastal states have a duty to establish a safe port as soon as is practical.
“Disgraceful” is how Amnesty International described Italy’s position.
The group argued that while Italy “legitimately expects other EU member states to share responsibility for people seeking asylum, this does not justify imposing measures that only make already traumatized people even more suffering.”
Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Emily Schultheis contributed from Berlin and Angela Charlton from Paris.