In the latest migrant standoff in Europe, more than 80 people remain stranded at sea after Italy refused to let a rescue ship dock nearly three weeks ago.
The Spanish aid ship Open Arms initially picked up 147 migrants from sinking smuggler boats near Libyan waters. But for the past 19 days, the ship remained anchored in the Mediterranean Sea near the Italian island of Lampedusa in choppy weather conditions. Since then, the Italian coast guard has transferred only about 40 migrants—including minors and the sick—to shore.
Oscar Camps, founder of the rescue group Proactiva Open Arms, which operates the ship, told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser that conditions on the ship are tense as the anxious and traumatized migrants share a small space and deal with seasickness. On Sunday, the Open Arms’ crew members quickly dived into the water after several desperate migrants tried to swim toward Lampedusa. On Tuesday, at least 15 more migrants followed. The coast guard rescued them and took them to the island, leaving 83 migrants on board.
“We’ve been warning for days, desperation has its limits,” Camps said.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini repeatedly sought to block the ship from docking in Italian territorial waters even after several other European nations offered to take in some of the migrants. He has blamed rescue vessels for enabling smugglers to continue to bring the refugees out of Libya.
Earlier this month, Salvini and his League party successfully pushed a decree through the Italian Senate to fine rescue ships up to $1 million for entering Italian waters without authorization. The decree also allows naval authorities to arrest captains who ignore orders to stay away.
But an Italian court ruled the decree violates international laws, especially in light of the “exceptionally grave and urgent situation due to the protracted stay of the migrants on our boat,” Proactiva Open Arms said in a statement.
Salvini tried again to renew the ban, but Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta said she refused to sign off on it.
“We must never forget that behind the polemics of the past few days, there are children and young people who suffered violence and abuse of all types,” she said. “Politics must never lose sight of humanity.”
Illegal migration into Europe from the Mediterranean has dropped from previous years, but thousands of migrants still attempt the journey. This year, the United Nations recorded nearly 600 deaths in the waters between Libya and Italy. But European nations remain hesitant to open their borders.
The crisis is contributing to political upheaval in Italy. Last week, Salvini withdrew his party from its partnership with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and called for a snap election over disagreements on policies. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced his plans to resign Tuesday and accused Salvini of destabilizing the government.
“[Salvini would] like to have a new election, and he knows with his migration policy, he’d get substantial support,” said Yves Pascouau, founder of the European Migration Law group.
Another 356 migrants are aboard the Ocean Viking rescue ship, operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée. The groups have already asked Maltese and Italian authorities to provide a safe port.
Pascouau explained that Europe’s longstanding division over the migration crisis has resulted in a case-by-case response that will not resolve the problem. “They need to find the right balance between the sovereignty of the state and the dignity of the people,” he said.
UPDATE: Sicilian prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio later on Tuesday boarded the Open Arms and ordered its seizure and the immediate evacuation of its remaining passengers. “Finally, the nightmare ends and 83 people on board will receive immediate assistance on land,” Proactiva Open Arms tweeted.