Three migrants rescued from the Mediterranean and brought to a Sicilian port but then banned from disembarking jumped into the sea in desperation Monday, trapped in a standoff between charity ships and Italy’s new hard-right government.
The men were quickly pulled from the water near the Geo Barents ship, according to operator Doctors Without Borders (MSF), as it was docked in Catania with more than 200 people on board.
It is one of a handful of charity vessels that save migrants at risk of drowning during the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe, and which are now in the crosshairs of new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government.
Shortly after the men jumped — apparently one had been trying to save the other two — a dozen other migrants standing on the deck of the ship chanted “Help us”, an AFP journalist witnessed.
After days at sea, Geo Barents docked in Catania this weekend and Italian authorities allowed 357 people to disembark, including children, while refusing entry to 215 others.
Nearby, German-flagged rescue ship Humanity 1 disembarked 144 people, but still has 35 adult male migrants onboard who were similarly refused permission to go ashore.
A government decree issued Friday said Humanity 1 was only allowed into an Italian port for the time it took to help those in “emergency conditions”.
Italy’s two-week-old government, led by Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party and comprising Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League, has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on the country’s shores each year.
Most come in overcrowded, leaky boats and many die as they try to reach Europe. But Italy has long complained that the EU does not share the burden of managing the problem.
Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking migrant boats when he was interior minister in 2019, said Monday the arrivals must be stopped.
“They are organised trips, increasingly dangerous, which finance weapons and drugs. They must be cut off,” the now deputy prime minister tweeted.
Even as tensions rose in Catania, however, more than 500 people were rescued by Italian authorities and disembarked in Sicily, the head of the Syracuse administration told AFP.
One of the 215 left onboard Geo Barents was later evacuated by ambulance after suffering “acute abdominal pain”, MSF said on Monday, bringing the total to 214.
Antonio Nicita, a senator with the centre-left Democratic Party, said he had visited the ship and found “a lot of suffering”.
“Many people undressed in front of us to show their scabies infection,” he told AFP.
“Their situation, their level of psychological stress is very, very high,” added Riccardo Gatti, the chief of search and rescue at MSF.
“The ship has its limitations in terms of medical assistance: a ship is like an ambulance and people are still in the ambulance,” he said.
The charity SOS Humanity, which operates the Humanity 1 ship, said authorities decided after a “brief” medical exam that the 35 men left onboard its vessel were “healthy” and so need not disembark.
But it said no translator attended and there was no psychological evaluation, and has launched legal action against the Italian authorities for selecting those who have the right to land in Italy.
“If a port is secure, then it’s secure for everybody,” SOS Humanity lawyer Riccardo Campochiaro told AFP.
The ship’s captain, Joachim Ebeling, has defied the demand to leave the port, telling reporters on Monday: “I’m not going anywhere with these people onboard.”
UN agencies the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration all urged the disembarkation of the migrants “without delay”.
“Italy’s efforts in the disembarkation of some 400 people… are welcomed. However, a solution is urgently needed for all remaining survivors,” a joint statement said.
They referred also to two other migrant rescue ships, the Ocean Viking and Rise Above, which have been waiting off Sicily with around 230 and 90 migrants respectively.
Media reports late Monday said Rise Above had been assigned a port in southern Italy.
A group of civil society organisations, including ActionAid International, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Refugee Council, echoed the call for a rapid disembarkation.
Amnesty International has accused Italy of “violating its international obligations”, saying “the law of the sea is clear; a rescue ends when all those rescued are disembarked in a place of safety”.