ON BOARD THE GEO BARENTS — Aid groups caring for nearly 1,000 migrants rescued on three ships in the central Mediterranean are sounding the alarm over deteriorating conditions, but Italy’s new far-right government has failed to respond to requests for ports secure as it hardens its position against the lifeboats.
The country’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, has set the stage to ban humanitarian ships from Italian ports while calling on countries whose flag rescue ships are flying to ease Italy’s burden by accepting rescued passengers .
These measures recall the anti-NGO posture adopted by the leader of the League party Matteo Salvini, now deputy prime minister, who prevented humanitarian ships from accessing Italian ports when he was interior minister in 2018-19.
So far, Italy, along with Malta, has remained silent in response to demands for a safe harbor from the three vessels: the Geo Barents, operated by Doctors Without Borders, which has 572 people on board; SOS Mediteranee’s Ocean Viking, with 234 people on board, and SOS Humanity’s Humanity 1 with 179. All were rescued over a week-long period from 22 October.
While Italy is de facto preventing aid ships from disembarking the 1,000 people, Interior Ministry figures show that Italian authorities have brought another 6,383 people to the country’s shores in the past week.
Migrant arrivals by sea to Italy have increased this year, reaching 85,991 so far, compared to 53,825 in the same period last year. The number is still well below the peak of arrivals in 2014-2016.
The crew of the Geo Barents is struggling to accommodate the migrants recovered during seven operations from October 22. They include more than 60 unaccompanied minors, even more families with children and pregnant women, as well as elderly people. Many are sleeping on the floor and supplies are dwindling.
“We are here on board with 572 people, some of them have already been with us for 6 days,” said Caroline Willemen, MSF coordinator on the Geo Barents. “As you can see, the situation here on the bridge is extremely overcrowded. People have no space to move around. The MSF team is doing everything possible to take care of them.
“It is absolutely necessary that they can disembark as soon as possible in a safe place,” she said.
The rescued migrants were struggling with the overcrowded conditions and uncertainty.
“We don’t have enough space to sleep. We sleep on the ground and it is very cold in the morning and at night,” said Khaled Mahmoud Mansour, a Palestinian. “In fact, the situation is becoming more difficult day by day.”
After failing to get a response from Italy or Malta, SOS Méditerranée also issued safe port requests to Greece, Spain and France. “The 234 people rescued on board must be disembarked urgently,” the group said. “The current blockade at sea of 985 people is illegal and inhumane.”
The maritime rescue group has urged EU member countries to come up with a ‘predictable system of disembarkation to ease pressure on European coastal states’, saying those rescued at sea ‘must no longer be traded in political debates “.
European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said the commission was aware of the 3 vessels with around 1,000 people seeking to disembark safely, but stressed that it was not coordinating operations at sea or the landings.
“Saving lives at sea is a moral duty as well as a legal obligation for member states under international law, regardless of the circumstances that have led people to distress at sea,” Hipper told reporters.
Piantedosi signed a directive last week that can be used to again block aid groups from accessing the Italian port and called on the countries whose flag they fly to crack down on migrants.
“We cannot take care of migrants picked up at sea by foreign ships that operate systematically without any coordination from the authorities,” Piantedosi told the Corriere della Sera newspaper this week.
“Since we welcome 84% of the migrants who arrive on our shores, rescued by us, we hope that the vaunted European solidarity will come true,” he said.
Italy and Germany exchanged communications regarding the German-flagged vessel Humanity 1, but no agreement was reached. The German foreign ministry said it had asked Italy to help quickly, but did not provide further details.
Barry reported from Milan. Lorne Cook in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed reporting.
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