Migrant boat stand-off continues in Italy

Guglielmo Mangiapane, REUTERS | The migrant search and rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, which is carrying stranded migrants, sails near the island of Lampedusa, Italy, on June 26, 2019.

The stand-off between a Sea-Watch rescue boat and Rome continued on Thursday as the European Commission called for relief for 42 migrants stranded on the spurned vessel.


"We waited one night. We cannot wait another," the German NGO tweeted on Thursday, a day after the Sea-Watch 3 entered Italian waters despite the threat of a hefty fine.

"Desperation of people in need is nothing to gamble with."

The Sea-Watch 3 entered Italian waters on Wednesday despite far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's threat to impose a substantial fine. The boat, which sails under a Dutch flag, is currently waiting off the coast of Lampedusa island. Shortly after the ship entered Italian waters without permission, Italian coastguard boats went out from Lampedusa to flank it.

The ship's Captain Carola Rackete has said she is ready to go to prison to bring the migrants to safety. They have spent more than two weeks at sea.

Psychological distress

Speaking to FRANCE 24 later on Thursday, Marie Faggianelli, a Sea-Watch France volunteer, said the group’s actions were not a case of “defying” the Italian government. Rather, she said, it was a “matter of emergency”.

Migrants suffering physical ailments left the boat yesterday but Faggianelli said the others were also unwell.

“They are in a psychological state which is really, really hard: they are traumatised, they have been raped, they have been tortured […] psychologically they are very broken,” she said.

Salvini has said the migrants can disembark only if they head straight to the Netherlands, where the Sea-Watch 3 is registered, or to Germany.

The anti-immigrant Lega leader accuses NGOs of aiding human trafficking and says Europe should better share the load of receiving migrants.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said Brussels was "closely involved in coordinating with the member states to find a solution for relocating the migrants on board Sea-Watch 3."

'Swift resolution'

"A solution for people on board is only possible once they are disembarked," Avramopoulos said in a statement. "I hope that Italy in this particular incident will contribute to a swift resolution for the persons on board."

Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud noted that while "the duty to rescue is clear", "there is no obligation for countries to accept disembarkation for incidents from outside their rescue area."

Of the 53 migrants initially rescued by the Sea-Watch 3 off Libya on June 12, Italy has already taken in 11 vulnerable people.

Aid groups and the UN say it is not safe to take migrants back to war-torn Libya.

Salvini has tried to ban the Dutch-flagged vessel from approaching under a "closed ports" policy which has seen migrants repeatedly stranded at sea.

"I hope that in the coming hours there will be a judge to say that there are outlaws on board this vessel," Salvini told Italian radio on Thursday.

Salvini has threatened to not register the migrants on arrival and to send them on elsewhere in Europe, but Brussels has warned this would result in a penalty procedure for Rome.

On Wednesday, the interior minister said Rome's ambassador to The Hague was "taking a formal step with the Netherlands government" to resolve the issue.

Salvini this month issued a decree that would bring fines of up to 50,000 euros for the captain, owner and operator of a vessel "entering Italian territorial waters without authorisation".

A Facebook fund to pay for Sea-Watch's legal fees and fines collected at least 135,000 euros on Thursday, a day after it was set up.

A history of migrant rescues

Italy's interior ministry says nearly 500 migrants have arrived in the country over the last two weeks aboard smaller vessels while the Sea-Watch 3 has zig-zagged on the high seas without a safe port.

A small boat carrying 10 migrants, reportedly from Tunisia, sailed past the Sea-Watch 3 at dawn on Thursday and landed them in Italy.

Italian police on Wednesday evening intercepted a boat carrying another 34 migrants and took them to Sicily.

In January, 32 migrants rescued by the Sea-Watch 3 were stranded on board for 18 days before they were allowed to disembark in Malta following a distribution deal agreed by several European countries, including the Netherlands.

"It's serious when the captain has no other choice but to honour her sense of responsibility at the cost of personal consequences," said Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Italy, adding the "criminalisation of NGOs must end".

An Italian magistrate ordered the Sea-Watch 3 to be seized last month after it rescued dozens of migrants, accusing the crew of breaching immigration rules. It was released at the start of June and returned to the Libyan coastline.

Meanwhile, Spanish rescue vessel Open Arms headed back to the waters of Libya Thursday despite the threat of a 200,000-900,000 euro fine from the Spanish authorities.

"Our mandate is to rescue people, we're going there to witness and do what we can so that no lives are lost," Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza told AFP.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning