Aid group: Italy must let all migrants off rescue ship

US & World

Migrants are evacuated by Italian Coast guards from the Open Arms Spanish humanitarian boat off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. A Spanish aid boat with 147 rescued migrants aboard is anchored off a southern Italian island as Italy’s ministers spar over their fate. (AP Photo/Francisco Gentico)

ROME (AP) — Three ailing migrants and a family member were evacuated Friday from a Spanish rescue ship anchored near a southern Italian island but 134 others remained stuck on the boat as Italy’s political battle over migration raged on.

The humanitarian ship Open Arms had rescued 147 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea near Libya two weeks ago and won a legal battle to enter Italy’s territorial waters despite a ban by right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Yet most of the migrants remained aboard the ship as Salvini stuck to his resolve to keep humanitarian vessels from docking in Italy.

“I’m not giving up, you can be sure of that,” Salvini vowed Friday in a tweet.

Despite offers by Spain and five other European Union nations on Thursday to take in the migrants, whom Salvini doesn’t want to accept, it was unclear when or how the standoff might end. The Open Arms was anchored a few hundred yards (meters) off Lampedusa island and one emergency worker said tempers among migrants were fraying as the delays dragged on.

Late Thursday, an Italian coast guard dinghy had ferried to shore nine migrants, including several who were evacuated for psychological reasons.

Open Arms, which carried out the first rescue of this group of migrants on Aug. 1, described the situation on board Friday as “unsustainable” and appealed for “the urgent and immediate evacuation of all.”

“Land in view and no solution. The rights of 134 persons are trampled every additional minute,” the aid group tweeted. “If European politics don’t know how to find solutions, who must do it?”

Alessandro Di Benedetto, a psychologist for the charity group Emergency, who had gone aboard to speak with the migrants, said Friday that several had exhibited acts of self-harm or expressed thoughts about suicide, while others were starting to take out their anger at being kept aboard on fellow migrants.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte earlier this week asked Salvini to let all the 32 minors on the ship off, but the minister hasn’t complied.

State TV and other Italian media reported Friday night that lawyers for Open Arms had submitted a complaint with prosecutors in Sicily alleging that the migrants were being held hostage. Prosecutors were investigating their complaint, according to the reports.

Officials for Open Arms couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Salvini and other ministers in the past have been investigated for alleged kidnapping for previous standoffs in which Italian ports were kept closed to the rescue ships. In one such investigation, the Senate voted earlier this year against lifting Salvini’s parliamentary immunity from prosecution. None of the probes has resulted in any charges.

Salvini and his right-wing League party are seeking to end Conte’s populist coalition with a no-confidence vote soon. One of the party’s key issues is immigration. He is pushing for an early Italian election that he hopes will see him win the premiership.

The Italian court ruling overturned the ban on entering territorial waters but didn’t rule on Salvini’s ban against charity boats’ docking in Italy. Salvini announced on Thursday that he would challenge the ruling in a higher tribunal.

In Brussels, European Commission spokeswoman Vanessa Mock said the EU’s executive stands ready to provide support on once the people aboard are disembarked and an official request has been made for help.

“The situation where persons are stranded at sea for days and weeks on end is untenable,” Mock told reporters Friday. “Once again, we are reminded that predictable and sustainable solutions are urgently needed in the Mediterranean to ensure that people can disembark quickly and safely and receive the care they need.”

Another humanitarian rescue boat, the Ocean Viking, has 356 migrants aboard and was sailing Friday in the waters between Malta and Linosa, a tiny Italian island just north of Lampedusa. The Norwegian vessel had plucked the migrants to safety in several rescues in the past few days and is operated by two humanitarian groups, Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee.

It was unclear where Ocean Viking might hope to find a safe port to disembark the migrants.

One crew member from Doctors With Borders said in a video Friday that the migrants on the ship had to constantly be reassured that they weren’t going back to lawless Libya.

U.N. workers and migrants have described horrific conditions in overcrowded detention centers in Libya, where migrants are routinely beaten, starved, raped or forced to work as slaves.

The International Organization for Migration says over 39,280 migrants have reached Europe this year from North Africa across the Mediterranean with at least 840 others dying on the journey — numbers that are significantly lower than in previous years.

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Lorne Cook contributed to this report from Brussels.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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