After the fourth rescue in four days, NGO rescue ship Ocean Viking now has over 350 migrants on board waiting for a safe harbor - but the vessel is only equipped to carry 200 to 250 people. Italy and Malta continue to deny entry into their ports.
The private search and rescue ship Ocean Viking has taken another 105 migrants on board following a "critical rescue" in the Mediterranean on Monday, SOS Mediterranee wrote on Twitter.
After the fourth rescue in as many days off the coast of Libya, the number of those aboard the ship seeking a safe port is now at 356.
Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, operated by French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), rescued the migrants from a blue rubber dinghy as it started to deflate and sink.
"Minutes after life jackets were distributed, a rubber tube on the fragile boat burst, causing people to fall into the water," SOS Mediterranee said, describing the latest mission. The rescuers were able to get everyone safely on the ship, it added.
The rescue took place 40 nautical miles from Libya in international waters. All migrants were male, mostly Sudanese and include 29 minors of whom two are boys aged five and 12.
The Ocean Viking is equipped to carry 200 to 250 people, significantly fewer than the 356 now on board. In a previous statement announcing the launch of the vessel earlier this month, MSF had said the Ocean Viking "can take up to 200 survivors on board."
Sooner or later, the ship's crew will have to begin searching for a safe port - at a time of open hostility towards privately run rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Italy and Malta have repeatedly refused entry to ships carrying rescued migrants.
The Maltese authorities, contacted by the Ocean Viking after Monday's rescue, refused to take in the migrants, saying they were obliged to do so only for those picked up in the country's rescue zone.
All the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking were rescued off Libya, but the ship's operations coordinator Nicholas Romaniuk said efforts to contact Libya’s coast guard have failed for the past five days. It is unclear whether this has something to do with a three-day Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, which kicked off on Sunday; it has been said that the holiday may reduce the presence of authorities patrolling Libyan beaches.
Meanwhile, Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini reiterated his insistence on an "absolute prohibition" of entry by either the Ocean Viking or the Open Arms vessel of the Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms to enter Italian territorial waters. Generally speaking, the Italian government refuses to let migrants land on its shores unless its EU partners shoulder their share of the burden.
Last week, Italy announced fines of up to €1 million for ships carrying unauthorized migrants that try to dock in Italian ports without permission. The country has ordered the seizure of such ships and NGO skippers to be arrested if they fail to obey the orders of police or navy ships.
The Central Mediterranean is among the most dangerous routes for people trying to flee Africa and the Middle East for Europe via sea: Over 400 people have died since the beginning of the year after setting off from Libya's coastlines.
Over 500 migrants in limbo
Aside from the 356 rescued migrants aboard the Ocean Viking, another 150 migrants are stuck aboard the Open Arms off the coast of Italy's southern Lampedusa island. This means the number of migrants aboard both ships has grown to more than 500.
Open Arms on Monday called on Spain to grant asylum to the 31 minors among the 150 rescued migrants.
"All the minors... fulfil the conditions for recognition as refugees," Open Arms captain Marc Reig wrote to the Spanish embassy in Malta, asking it to relay the request to Madrid.
Earlier, Proactiva's founder Oscar Camps tweeted: "Italy forbids the Open Arms from entering Italian territorial waters to seek shelter at Lampedusa. Malta forbids entry to its territorial waters to seek shelter. Everything is great."
He also warned of huge sea swells forecast for Wednesday afternoon.
It is unclear whether the Ocean Viking, which is equipped with a medical clinic and four high-speed rescue boats, will remain in the region without a safe port willing to let it dock.
With material from AFP, dpa