CATANIA, Sicily (HPD) — Italian authorities on Sunday prevented 35 migrants they did not consider vulnerable from disembarking in Sicily. The far-right Italian government has adopted a harsh strategy against private rescue ships operating in Italian waters.
The impact of the directive presented by the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Piantedosi, became apparent overnight. The Humanity 1, carrying 179 rescued passengers, was given access to the Sicilian port, but three other rescue vessels run by non-governmental organizations and carrying a total of 900 people remained at sea.
NGOs said people were sleeping on floors and decks, infections with fever and scabies were spreading, and food and medical supplies were running out. Some migrants have been on the boats for more than two weeks.
Officials from the German charity SOS Humanity, which manages the Humanity 1, questioned the Italian decision to distinguish between passengers classified as “vulnerable” or not. All passengers on the ship were rescued at sea and that alone entitles them to a safe harbor under international law, the organization said.
“As we feared, not everyone was allowed to disembark,” Wasil Schauseil, a spokesman for SOS Humanity, said on Sunday.
“Our doctor was asked to make a selection of people who were in poor health, and the doctor responded that everyone was in a vulnerable situation, so she would not do the selection,” Schauseil said.
Some 100 of the 179 people on Humanity 1 were unaccompanied minors, according to the organization.
Finally, two Italian doctors boarded the ship after midnight and conducted check-ups throughout the night to determine which passengers had health problems that made them vulnerable.
“The doctors declared that 36 people were not in an emergency situation. Upon receiving the news, one person fainted and lost consciousness and had to be taken to an ambulance,” Schauseil said. “That’s why there are 35 people on board.”
“You can imagine the state of the people. It’s very devastating,” she said.
The Humanity 1 has not yet received orders to leave the port, as specified in the directive signed by three Italian ministers on Friday night. The text indicated that the ship could remain in Italian waters only long enough to determine which passengers were vulnerable, defined as minors and people with medical emergencies.
“Everyone has the right to disembark and we hope that everyone can disembark,” Schauseil said. “We do not believe this is valid under international law.”
Three other boats carrying rescued migrants were still at sea, two in Italian waters and one in international waters, after their crews repeatedly called for a safe harbor.
The Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants, and the German-run Rise Above, carrying 93 rescued people, entered Italian waters east of Sicily over the weekend to seek shelter from storms at sea.
The Ocean Viking, operated by the European charity SOS Méditeranée, with 234 migrants on board, was still in international waters south of the Strait of Messina.
The confrontational stance taken by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government is reminiscent of clashes with Matteo Salvini, now infrastructure minister and head of ports, during his brief tenure in 2018 and 2019 as interior minister.
The new Italian government insists that the migrants must go to the countries whose flag the rescue ships fly. Piantedosi last Friday described those ships as “islands” under the jurisdiction of the countries where they are registered.
In a video on Facebook, Salvini reiterated his accusations that the presence of humanitarian ships encourages smugglers.
Non-governmental organizations reject the government’s interpretation and say that they are obliged by the law of the sea to rescue people in trouble, and that coastal countries are obliged to provide a safe harbor as soon as possible.
While humanitarian ships have been denied safe harbor, thousands of migrants have washed up on Italian shores in the past week, either on their own on fishing boats or after being rescued at sea by Italian authorities. Those immigrants account for 85% of arrivals, according to the government.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan.