The Open Arms was given permission to enter Italian waters | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Sea Watch/F. Bungert
The Open Arms was given permission to enter Italian waters | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Sea Watch/F. Bungert

The private migrant rescue boat Open Arms is headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa with 147 rescued migrants on board. The green light came after a judge in Rome suspended Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's decree banning NGO vessels from Italy's territorial waters.

After being stranded in the Mediterranean for two weeks, the search and rescue (SAR) vessel of Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms has entered Italian territorial waters. A court in Rome ruled that the Open Arms vessel may enter Italian waters after establishing that the situation on board constituted an emergency. It thereby overturned the ban imposed by Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. 

The court in Rome based its ruling on expert medical and psychological assessments, Italian news agency ANSA reported Wednesday.

Italy's interior ministry announced it will challenge the decision. In a statement, it said it would appeal the ruling at the State Council, a higher administrative body, because the court did not have all the relevant facts when it made its ruling, according to the ministry.

Salvini reiterated his objection to humanitarian ships entering Italian ports. "What a strange country," Salvini said from a beach in northwestern Italy. "The court in Lazio (Rome) wants to authorize a foreign boat to disembark foreign migrants in Italy." He would continue to refuse the ship entry "because I will never be an accomplice to human traffickers," Salvini added.

Since taking over as interior minister in June 2018, Salvini has taken a hard stance against migrants. 

Proactiva Open Arms welcomed the decision by the court, saying on Twitter that "the end of this nightmare" is coming closer even though the crew does not have an assigned port yet.

"It's a success. International maritime law prevails," Proactiva Open Arms‘ founder Oscar Camps told journalists in Madrid after the judge overruled Salvini’s order. "Everyone does not think like Salvini,“ Camps added.

The overruled decree, signed by Salvini in early August, banned the Open Arms from entering Italy's territorial waters. Salvini argued the measure was needed to protect public order. The decree also included the possibility of fining NGOs up to €1 million for their ships carrying unauthorized migrants that try to dock in Italian ports without permission.

The country has also ordered the seizure of such ships and NGO skippers to be arrested if they fail to obey the orders of police or navy ships.

Two-week odyssey

The Open Arms was stranded in the Mediterranean for two weeks. It rescued 151 people in two separate operations on August 2 and August 3. A day after the first rescue, the Italian coast guard evacuated two pregnant women, but the other passengers remained on board. Yesterday, two babies were evacuated by helicopter from the ship to Malta for health reasons.

In the past few days, the situation on board deteriorated, Proactiva Open Arms had warned. Fights may break out at any moment among the migrants stranded on the vessel, Camps said earlier this week. "We could have a fight within a half-hour with a serious injury, or worse, someone could die on board due to violence," he told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser on Tuesday. "It would be a tragedy, it would be unforgivable."

Camps stressed that many of the migrants on the ship, mainly from Africa, are suffering "very high levels of post-traumatic stress" and anxiety over their future.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Viking, a different search and rescue vessel run by charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is still in international waters and after rescuing 351 migrants in four consecutive days. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR on Tuesday urged European governments to immediately allow the rescued migrants to disembark as countries bicker over who should take them.

With material from AFP, AP, Reuters


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