Over 500 migrants remain stranded at sea

Two rescue vessels carrying more than 500 migrants remain stranded in the Mediterranean after having been denied a safe port of entry in Europe. Italy and Malta are refusing to allow the ships to dock and for the migrants to disembark.

The two vessels, manned by Spanish and French charity organisations, have been left at sea with rescued migrants on board for over three weeks.

On 13 August, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini made it clear that his country would not allow the two rescue boats to enter its ports.

“I am at work in the Ministry this morning to prevent more than 500 migrants from disembarking from two NGO boats, one French one Spanish,” Salvini wrote on Facebook.

Since then, Italy has partly softened its approach, permitting 27 unaccompanied minors to disembark the Spanish Open Arms boat in Lampedusa on 17 August, after more than 16 days at sea.

The second boat, Ocean Viking, is operated by French charities Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, two organisations which only recently resumed rescue operations in the Mediterannean seven months after they were suspended. The Ocean Viking is carrying around 356 migrants, who were rescued on 9 August.

The rescue boats are resisting returning the migrants to Libya, and have asked European nations to take them in as the situation on the boats is becoming critical.

On Sunday, the Spanish government offered the remaining migrants on the Open Arms ship to disembark, but the charity said the situation was too critical to risk the long journey to Spain. It called the situation on board a “full humanitarian crisis”.

The UN is also expressing its concern. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Charlie Yaxley told Voice of America last week that the migrants should be disembarked as soon as possible, as dangerous storms were expected over the weekend.

“Really, this is a question of how much we are willing to turn a blind eye to the suffering of people who have fled war and violence,” he said.

Explaining that many of the people aboard the rescue vessels come from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, Yaxley stated:  “People do not choose to risk their lives on these dangerous journeys unless they feel the desperation that their lives are in better hands on the water than on remaining on the land.”

The stalemate is part of an ongoing pushback from far-right government parties. Italian and Maltese governments have blamed other European countries for leaving them to deal with the high number of migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean alone. The two countries have been persistent in their policies set to deter irregular migration.

Italy has so far closed its ports to migrant and rescue boats, banned rescue operations across the central Mediterranean, and passed a law imposing fines of more than USD 1 million on rescue boats entering its waters.

TMP – 22/08/2019

Photo credit: Cesare Abbate/ ANSA

Photo caption: One of the stranded rescue boats