Migrant rescue ship heads for Italy after judge overrules Salvini

Rome (AFP) –


Spanish humanitarian ship Open Arms headed for Lampedusa on Wednesday with 147 rescued migrants on board after a judge in Rome suspended far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's decree banning them from Italian territorial waters.

The Proactiva Open Arms charity which operates the ship said it would not try to force entry to Lampedusa port, as another rescue vessel, the Sea-Watch 3 did in June, prompting its seizure and the arrest of its captain.

The Open Arms is seeking shelter from 2.5-metre (eight-foot) swells along with the Ocean Viking ship operated by SOS Mediterranea and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has more than 350 migrants plucked from the Mediterranean on board.

Both Italy and Malta refused both vessels permission to dock and unload their passengers.

Salvini announced a swift appeal against the judge's ruling and signed another decree, saying that the Open Arms behaviour showed its "political objective of bring (migrants) to Italy."

Proactiva Open Arms' founder Oscar Camps told journalist in Madrid: "We won the appeal which we filed at an administrative court in Italy against the security decree."

The decree was signed by Salvini at the beginning of August banning the Open Arms from entering Italy's territorial waters, saying it was needed to protect public order.

Under the decree, the Proactiva Open Arms could be slapped with a fine of up to one million euros ($1.1 million) and its boat seized if it disobeyed.

But Camps said the court was also allowing the 147 migrants currently on board the Open Arms to disembark in Italy.

"All that is missing is that we be assigned a port," Camps said.

Since coming to power in June 2018, Salvini has repeatedly taken a hard line against migrants.

"It's a success. International maritime law prevails," Camps said, before adding that in Italy "everyone does not think like Salvini".

He recalled that under international agreements, rescued migrants should be taken to the closest available port which in the case of the Open Arms is in Italy or Malta.

"What a strange country," Salvini complained from a beach in the northwest of Italy.

"The court in Lazio (Rome) wants to authorise a foreign boat to disembark foreign migrants in Italy."

Salvini is trying to bring down the government, so far without success, after last week pulling the plug on the ruling coalition his League was part of.

His party has been riding high in opinion polls, largely thanks to his tough anti-migrant policies.

The opposition Democratic Party on Wednesday asked Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to allow the migrants aboard Open Arms to disembark.

Earlier on Wednesday, Camps warned that fights may break out at any moment among the migrants stranded on the vessel.

"We could have a fight within a half-hour with a serious injury, or worse, someone could die on board due to violence," he told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser.

"It would be a tragedy, it would be unforgivable."

The 19 crew members on the Open Arms are finding it harder to contain tensions on board, he added.

Many of the migrants, mainly from Africa, are suffering from "very high levels of post-traumatic stress" and anxiety over their future.

They must share just two bathrooms and a living space of only 180 square metres (2,000 square feet), Camps said.

Two babies were evacuated by helicopter from the ship to Malta on Wednesday for health reasons, Camps said.