Migrants from Eritrea, Egypt, Syria and Sudan are assisted by aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, after fleeing Libya on board a wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea on January 2, 2021 | Joan Mateu/AP Photo
Migrants from Eritrea, Egypt, Syria and Sudan are assisted by aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, after fleeing Libya on board a wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea on January 2, 2021 | Joan Mateu/AP Photo

After rescuing 265 migrants in two operations in the Mediterranean Sea within three days, Italy has allowed the Spanish flagged rescue ship Open Arms to bring its passengers to the Italian island of Sicily. Many of the rescuees are to be taken to a quarantine ship.

On Monday, the Open Arms reached the Italian port town of Porto Empedocle on the Sicilian coast. It marked the first major arrival of migrants to Italy in the new year.

The Open Arms, a search and rescue (SAR) vessel operated by the Spanish nonprofit organization of the same name, rescued a total of 265 people in two separate operations in the Mediterranean Sea between December 31 and January 2.

During the second rescue, which took place on Saturday (January 2), the crew of the Open Arms took 96 people on board from a "precarious wooden boat on high seas" that was "adrift in international waters".

Among the passengers, who were mostly Eritrean and were suffering from hypothermia, were two women and 17 minors.

Two days before, on New Year's Eve, the Open Arms picked up 169 people, including six children, from an overflowing wooden boat. The rescue also took place in international waters.

According to Open Arms, Malta had rejected the organization's plea for help, but Italy granted it Sunday night. Among the 265 rescuees were 50 unaccompanied minors, six infants and a highly pregnant woman.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Open Arms was not allowed to enter the port of Porto Empedocle. Instead, the majority of the migrants will be brought to a quarantine ferry outside of the harbor, news agency epd reported citing Italy's public broadcaster Rai. The unaccompanied minors will be taken to a facility on the mainland, according to epd.

Open Arms founder Oscar Camps said that the SAR vessel is currently the only humanitarian aid ship conducting search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. The private vessel left Spain shortly before Christmas on a new mission to the central Mediterranean.

Returned to Libya

Both migrant boats reportedly departed from Libyan coasts. According to Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the 260 migrants rescued by Open Arms were among some 420 who tried to flee Libya.

162 migrants were intercepted and returned to the war-torn north African country on Sunday (January 3), Msehli said on Twitter.

Italy and fellow EU member state Malta have often refused humanitarian rescue boats to dock at their ports. This policy resulted in several stand-offs, some of which lasted several weeks. Both countries have repeatedly insisted that other EU nations do their share.

In 2020, more than 34,000 migrants arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean, the vast majority in Sicily. That's according to the latest data by UNHCR.

With AP, KNA, epd

 

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