Italy closes ports to NGO migrant ships, leaving hundreds stranded

Italy allowed a humanitarian rescue ship carrying 179 migrants to enter a Sicilian port and begin disembarking minors early Sunday, while refusing to respond to requests for safe harbor from three other ships carrying 900 other people in nearby waters react.

Italy’s new far-right government has shut down its ports to rescue ships operated by NGOs and insists countries that fly the flag must take the migrants. It granted Humanity 1 sole access to the port to bring minors and people in need of medical assistance ashore.

Officials at the German-led charity that runs Humanity 1 questioned Italy’s move to distinguish “vulnerable” migrants, saying all were rescued at sea and that alone qualifies them for a safe haven under international law.

Italy closes ports for NGO migrant ships
Migrants rest aboard the Ocean Viking ship sailing in the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea on November 2, 2022 after being rescued by European charity SOS Mediterranee.

VINCENZO CIRCOSTA/AFP/Getty Images


Italy’s only black lawmaker in the lower chamber, Abourbakar Soumahoro, met Humanity 1 in the port of Catania and condemned the government’s closure of ports to NGO ships as a “shame”.

“At the moment, a selective disembarkation is underway in the port of Catania,” Soumahoro said on Twitter. “Worn-out bodies of shipwrecked people, already exhausted from cold, fatigue, trauma and torture, are considered objects by Giorgia Meloni’s government.”

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said on Friday that Humanity 1 would only be allowed in Italian waters long enough to disembark minors and people in urgent need of medical care.

The measure was approved after Germany and France each called on Italy to give the migrants a safe haven and indicated they would take some of the migrants in so Italy would not shoulder the burden alone.

No such provisions were offered to the other three ships. The Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents, with 572 migrants, and the German-operated Rise Above, with 93 migrants, entered Italian waters east of Sicily this weekend seeking shelter from storm-swollen seas, but without Italy’s approval or response Repeated requests to maintain a safe haven.

The Ocean Viking, operated by European charity SOS Mediteranee, remained in international waters south of the Strait of Messina with 234 migrants on board. Requests for a port are also not answered.

“We have been waiting for 10 days for a safe place for the 572 survivors to disembark,” said Juan Mattias Gil, head of mission for Geo Barents, which is run by MSF.

Head of operations Riccardo Gatti said that many on board not only suffered from skin and respiratory infections, but were also stressed by the long time at sea.

SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1, said it had made 19 safe harbor requests, all unanswered. The boat was carrying 100 unaccompanied minors and infants as young as 7 months old, sources said.

Italy’s new government insists that countries flagging the charity ships must take in the migrants. At a news conference late Friday, Piantedosi described such ships as “islands” under the jurisdiction of flag states.

Infrastructure Minister Matteo Salvini, known for his anti-migrant stance, hailed the new directive he signed alongside Italy’s defense and interior ministers.

“We stop being hostages to these foreign and private NGOs that organize the routes, traffic, transport and migration policies,” Salvini said in a Facebook video, repeating his claim that the ships’ presence encourages smugglers.

NGOs reject this interpretation, saying that under the law of the sea they have an obligation to rescue people in distress at sea and that coastal states have an obligation to provide a safe port as soon as possible.

“The decree of the Italian interior minister is undoubtedly illegal,” said Mirka Schaefer, Advocacy Officer at SOS Humanity. “The pushing back of refugees at the Italian border violates the Geneva Refugee Convention and international law.”

Most of these migrants have traveled via Libya, where they made their way unseaworthy boats in search of a better life in Europe and are often abused by human traffickers.

While boats run by humanitarian organizations are denied a safe haven, thousands of migrants have reached Italian shores in the last week, either alone in fishing boats or rescued at sea by Italian authorities. On Saturday, 147 arrived in Augusta, including 59 on the oil ship Zagara, which also had two bodies on board.

The situation on the Rise Above, run by German NGO Mission Lifeline, is said to have been particularly dire, with 93 people on board a relatively small 25-metre (82-foot) boat.

Spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann described a “very critical situation that … led to very great tension” on board because the passengers saw land and did not understand why they did not dock.

The ship’s chief of operations, Clemens Ledwa, immediately called for a safe port, citing bad weather and the small ship’s limited capacity.

“It’s not a wish. That is everyone’s right,” he said on Friday evening.

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