CATANIA, Sicily — Italian authorities prevented 35 migrants they did not deem vulnerable from getting off a boat in Sicily on Sunday as Italy’s new far-right-led government takes a hard line against privately run maritime rescue ships operating in Italian waters.
Humanitarian groups and two Italian lawmakers who traveled to Sicily protested the selection process as both illegal and inhumane. The procedure was part of a directive ushered in by Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi as Italy again targets the non-governmental organizations it has long accused of encouraging people trafficking in the central Mediterranean Sea.
“Free all the people, free them,” Italian lawmaker Aboubakar Soumahoro said in an emotional appeal directed at Premier Giorgia Meloni from the Humanity 1 rescue ship, calling the new policy “inhuman.”
The passengers have faced ”trauma, they have faced everything that we can define as prolonged suffering, a hell,” Soumahoro said.
Italian authorities completed the process of identifying vulnerable migrants on the German-operated Humanity 1 overnight and asked the Geo Barents, with 572 rescued migrants, to proceed Sunday to the port of Catania for the same vetting.
Two other boats run by non-governmental organizations remained at sea, with no immediate change in status. The NGOs reported people sleeping on floors and decks, the spread of fever-inducing infections and scabies, and food and medical supplies nearing depletion. Some migrants have been on the ships for more than two weeks.
The Humanity 1, carrying 179 rescued passengers, entered the Sicilian port late Sunday, and two Italian doctors began the process of identifying people needing urgent medical care after the ship’s doctor refused, said SOS Humanity spokeseman Wasil Schauseil.
SOS Humanity considers all of the passengers vulnerable by definition after being rescued at sea, and deserving of a safe port under international law.
Authorities allowed three women and a baby off the ship first, then one family followed by unaccompanied minors, who numbered over 100, Schauseil said.
“As we feared, not everyone was allowed to disembark,’’ Schauseil said.
“The doctors declared 36 people not in an emergency. After receiving the news, one person collapsed and lost consciousness and had to be taken by an ambulance,” Schauseil said. “That is why 35 people are on board.
“You can imagine the condition of the people. It is very devastating,” he said.
The Humanity 1 has not received orders to leave the port, as specified in the directive signed by three Italian ministers Friday night. It specified the ship could remain in Italian waters just long enough to determine which passengers were vulnerable, defined as minors and people with medical emergencies.
“Everyone has a right to disembark, and we expect everyone can disembark,’’ Schauseil said. “We do not think this is valid under international law.”
After being asked to navigate into the port, the Norway-flagged Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants, was expected to arrive early Sunday afternoon, Doctors Without Borders said. It entered Italian waters east of Sicily over the weekend to seek protection from storm-swollen seas.
Two other ships carrying rescued migrants remained at sea, one in Italian waters and one in international waters, despite repeated requests for safe ports.
The German-run Rise Above, carrying 93, also was in Italian waters due to the weather, but spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann said Sunday that the crew had not received any communication from Italian authorities.
Poschmann described cramped conditions on the relatively small 25-meter ship and said the crew had to calm upset migrants who saw land Friday but could not reach it.
The Ocean Viking, operated by the European charity SOS Mediteranee, with 234 migrants on board, remained in international waters, south of the Strait of Messina, and did not receive instructions to proceed to a port, a spokesman said Sunday. Its first rescue was 16 days ago.
The confrontational stance taken by Meloni’s government is reminiscent of the standoffs orchestrated by Matteo Salvini, now Meloni’s infrastructure minister in charge of ports, during his brief 2018-2019 stint as interior minister.
Italy’s new government is insisting the countries whose flags the charity-run ships fly must take in the migrants. Late Friday, Piantedosi described such vessels as “islands” under the jurisdiction of the flag countries.
In a Facebook video, Salvini repeated his allegations that the presence of the humanitarian boats encourages smugglers.
Nongovernmental organizations reject the government’s interpretation, saying they are obligated by the law of the sea to rescue people in distress and that coastal nations are obligated to provide a safe port as soon as feasible.
While the humanitarian-run boats are being denied a safe port, thousands of migrants have reached Italian shores over the last week, either on their own in fishing boats or after being rescued at sea by Italian authorities. They account for 85% of all arrivals, according to the government.
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