France, Germany press Italy to open ports to 1,000 at sea

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Milan: France and Germany are asking Italy’s new far-right-led government to grant a safe port to nearly 1,000 people rescued by humanitarian groups in the central Mediterranean, some of whom have been stuck at sea for more than two weeks.

Humanitarian groups caring for the rescued migrants on four ships in the central Mediterranean are sounding an alarm about deteriorating conditions, including people sleeping on floors in the cold and spreading fevers.

A German charity, Mission Lifeline, reported that its ship is in “extreme danger” with 95 rescued people on board, half of them women and children, and bad weather forecast.

Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, has drafted new measures alleging that the non-governmental groups violated procedure by not properly coordinating their rescues, setting the groundwork for Italy to close the ports. Piantedosi has also asked the countries whose flags they fly to intervene.

Italy’s posture, maintaining silence to repeated requests for a safe port, has effectively blocked four charity-run rescue boats at sea. It is reminiscent of Italy’s anti-NGO policies under former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is now in charge of ports as infrastructure minister.

Meanwhile, Italian authorities continue to allow the arrivals of people rescued at sea by Italian patrols, including 456 arriving in Calabria on Thursday.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Friday that international law makes clear that Italy, as the closest port, “must let the ship in.” He referred to the Norway-flagged Ocean Viking with 234 people aboard operated by the group SOS Mediterranee, which has one of its headquarters in France.

“We have no doubt that Italy will welcome the ship … that Italy will respect international law,” he told French news broadcaster BFM TV.

The German Foreign Ministry said it has asked Italy to intervene quickly to help those aboard the German-flagged Humanitarian 1, with 179 people aboard. The boat is currently east of Sicily carrying 100 unaccompanied minors as well as a 7-month-old baby, the SOS Humanity charity said.

“They continue to be exposed to the elements, having to spend the cold nights on deck. Still, they are sleeping on the floor while winds and waves are increasing,” said spokesman Wasil Schauseil, adding that the state of limbo was adding to their mental stress. Fever was also spreading among the rescued people, with COVID tests turning up negative.

Darmanin said that France and Germany have told Italy that they are both ready to receive some of the migrants so that Italy won’t “bear the burden alone.”

Also at sea is the Doctors Without Borders-run ship Geo Barents, also flagged by Norway, with 572 people on board, including 60 unaccompanied minors as well as families with children and the elderly.

And another German-based charity, Mission Lifeline, said its ship Rise Above picked up 95 people in three operations on Thursday, and that neither Italy nor Malta have responded to requests for a port.

“The proportion of women, children and babies is unusually high, comprising about half of the people on board. We are particularly worried about the health of the eight babies as well as the small children. Many had been at sea for days at the time of the rescue and are extremely exhausted,” said Heremine Poschmann, a Mission Life spokeswoman.

The Rise Above “is in extreme danger,” Poschmann said, with bad weather forecast in the coming hours and with 104 people total on board a relatively small boat at 25 metres (82 feet) long, she said.

Normally they would transfer rescued people immediately to other bigger charity boats, but the other three are already at capacity, she said.

The migrants rescued at sea have mostly travelled through Libya, often being subjected to torture by human traffickers along the way, as they seek a better life in Europe.

Charities have denied circumventing procedures, and say it is their duty to rescue people in distress at sea. According to the UN refugee agency, coastal states are obligated to accept people from rescue ships “as soon as practicable,” and governments should cooperate to provide a place of safety for survivors.


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