Two charities running rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea said Italy ignored requests to allow their ship to bring 356 migrants ashore, exposing Europe’s latest failure to deal with African migration.
The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking at sea for 13 days awaiting port access, has been denied entry by Malta and two requests to Italian authorities have gone unanswered, they said.
The ship is carrying mostly Sudanese, plucked from the sea in four separate missions. They include more than 100 minors, around 90 of them unaccompanied, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said. Three children are under five.
The plight of the Ocean Viking, run by MSF and French charity, SOS Méditerranée, threatens to create another migration stand-off with Italy if it chooses to head there, after weeks of controversy involving another charity-run rescue ship.
Around 100 migrants were stranded off Italy for almost three weeks on the Open Arms until a prosecutor intervened and ordered them brought ashore against Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s wishes. Five of Italy’s EU partners will take them in.
“This is shameful,” said Jay Berger, project co-ordinator for MSF, speaking from the Ocean Viking, in international waters between Malta and the southern Italian island of Linosa.
“Leaving migrants on rescue boats for weeks until the crisis becomes an emergency is becoming the new norm,” he said. “We’re not trying to force our way into Italian or Maltese waters. We’re waiting for a solution but it is taking too long.”
The ship requested port access to Italian authorities on August 9 and 12, the charities said.
An Italian Transport Ministry spokesman declined to comment. Italy’s Foreign Ministry did not respond immediately to an email seeking comment.
Rome banned entry to private rescue ships, which operate off Libya in international waters close to Italy. Salvini calls them “taxis” for people-smugglers and says Italy should not be “Europe’s refugee camp”.
SUPPLIES RUNNING LOW
Aboard Ocean Viking, supplies are running low and the crew is rationing showers to conserve water, said Frédéric Penard, SOS Mediterranee’s director of operations.
“A rescue ship is like an ambulance. People should be transported but not living on it,” MSF’s Berger said, adding there was no certainty those on board could endure the wait, which would mean another week at sea.
The European Commission invited EU member states to show more “solidarity” and agree to take in migrants aboard Ocean Viking, a spokeswoman said.
No port except Tripoli welcomed the ship, the charities say. They regard the Libyan port as unsafe and fear the migrants would be put in detention centres and suffer human rights abuses if returned to the country.
Luca Pigozzi, a doctor aboard, said most migrants were in a stable physical condition, he feared the impact of psychological damage caused by violence suffered when fleeing their home country.
“The situation aboard is becoming tense,” he said.
Malta turned down the Ocean Viking requests saying it could not take the lead on any disembarkment. A Malta government spokesman said there was “no new update” on Ocean Viking and declined to comment further.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Paris is ready to take in 40 people from Ocean Viking. “Talks are underway with our European partners and I discussed the matter with my counterpart in Malta,” he said on Twitter.
Norway, where Ocean Viking is registered, rejected a French request to take some migrants, Justice Minister Joeran Kallmyr told broadcaster NRK.