A sailboat belonging to Italian charity Mediterranea Saving Humans has rescued 54 people including pregnant women and children in distress off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Barred from docking in Italy, it refuses to accept an offer by Malta to take in the migrants. It is the 21st stand-off since Italy's populist government has begun refusing any port access to humanitarian groups rescuing migrants at sea.
After the drama surrounding the German rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, another European aid organization's vessel has picked up stranded migrants at sea just outside Italian territorial waters off the southern coast of Lampedusa.
54 shipwrecked people have been rescued, the Italian NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans said on Thursday. Among those taken on board the ship, the Alex Mediterranea, are also four children and three pregnant women, it said.
"We are enormously happy to have snatched 54 people from the hell that is Libya," Mediterranea Saving Humans said, adding that the ship must now immediately find a safe haven.
Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini - who has made a point of barring migrant rescue ships from entering Italian ports - has already reacted to the news, saying the ship should go to Tunisia. Italy has insisted that the Libyan coast guard intervene and the migrants be brought back to Libya.
However, NGOs say is against maritime law since Libya is not a safe harbor. On Thursday, at least 80 migrants are feared dead after their boat sank off the Tunisian coast, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Italy also argues that the presence of the ships encourages smugglers and that Italy has been unfairly stuck with the burden of managing arrivals from northern Africa for the rest of Europe.
Barred from docking in Italy
Mediterranea Saving Humans said its ship was off Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa, just outside Italian territorial waters, and that it has been banned from entering Italian jurisdiction by ministerial decree.
We are now at the limit of Italian territorial waters waiting for a #safeport to be assigned as soon as possible for the 54 people rescued by ALEX #Mediterranea. Before the situation on board becomes untenable.— Mediterranea Saving Humans (@RescueMed) July 5, 2019
The NGO said the decree is illegitimate because it can't be applied to a ship carrying people rescued at sea, and because Italy can't ban an Italian-flagged ship from entering its waters.
Late Thursday, Malta said it will take the migrants in a deal with Italy to take an equal number already in Malta. Today, however, Mediterranea Saving Humans said it is refusing to bring the rescued 54 migrants to Malta because of the distance and psychological conditions of those on board as well as the "characteristics of the ship" itself.
Mediterranea did, however, offer to "transfer the shipwrecks to Maltese or Italian patrol boats."
The new drama follows a 17-day standoff between Italy and German rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 that ended when the captain, Carola Rackete, defied orders and forced her way to a dock in Lampedusa's main port.
Rackete is under investigation for disobeying orders and allegedly aiding illegal immigration. Although an Italian judge on Wednesday ruled that she had not acted against the law, she remains in Italy pending a hearing on July 9.
The Sea-Watch 3 and the Mediterranea Saving Humans rescue dramas are the 20th and the 21st stand-off, respectively, since Italy's populist government has begun refusing any port access to humanitarian groups rescuing migrants at sea.
With material from dpa, AP and AFP