migrants Italy

Migrants sit next to a food ration bag aboard the Ocean Viking rescue ship in the Gulf of Catania off Siciliy on November 6, 2022. (Photo: Vincenzo Circosta/AFP via Getty Images)

Migrant Defenders Demand Italy Allow All Asylum-Seekers Off Rescue Ships

Citing the law of the sea, one activist asserted that "a rescue ends when all those rescued are disembarked in a place of safety."

Human rights defenders on Monday urged authorities in Italy to allow all asylum-seeking migrants aboard several rescue ships in and near southern Italian ports to immediately disembark, while a German charity said it would sue Italy's new far-right government for refusing to designate a safe port for humanitarian vessels.

"Italian authorities must urgently allow all people on ship to disembark as soon as possible."

Italian authorities on Monday ordered the German-flagged rescue ship Humanity 1 to leave the Sicilian port of Catania with 35 migrants still on board. On Sunday, immigration officials allowed 144 other rescued migrants to disembark after health authorities conducted a brief screening to select individuals deemed "vulnerable."

According toAgence France-Presse, three people aboard the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents, another rescue ship docked at Catania with 250 people on board, jumped into the sea in desperation Monday as other asylum-seekers chanted "help us!"

Humanity 1 captain Joachim Ebeling is defying orders to leave Catania, telling reporters on Monday that "I'm not going anywhere with these people on board."

The captain ofthe Geo Barents--which disembarked about 500 migrants, most of them women and children--is also refusing the order to leave. Meanwhile, two other rescue ships, the Ocean Viking and the Rise Above, are still at sea off Sicily, carrying around 300 migrants in total.

European Commission spokesperson Anitta Hipper said Monday that European Union member states have a "legal and moral duty" to save migrant lives, regardless of why they are at sea.

Julia Hall, Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe, said in a statement that "Italian authorities must urgently allow all people on ship to disembark as soon as possible."

"The law of the sea is clear; a rescue ends when all those rescued are disembarked in a place of safety," she added. "There is no room for creative interpretations of the law when people are suffering and traumatized after risking their lives at sea."

The Geneva-based international medical charity Doctors Without Borders said Monday that "the partial and selective disembarkation... is heinous and can't be considered lawful according to maritime conventions."

Berlin-based search-and-rescue group SOS Humanity told reporters it will file a lawsuit in Rome appealing the decree refusing safe harbor to rescue vessels.

Riccardo Campochiaro, an Italian attorney for SOS Humanity, toldAgence France-Presse that "it is our government's obligation to provide a safe harbor... But there is a new strategy that has been put forward, the selection of people who have the right to disembark."

"If a port is secure, then it's secure for everybody," he stressed.

However, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party has led the country for just two weeks, campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, and within 48 hours of entering office, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi issued a directive prohibitingHumanity 1 and Ocean Viking from entering Italian ports.

"By forcing 35 people to remain on board the Humanity 1, Italy is not only violating its international obligations to disembark and protect them under both human rights and maritime law but also creating a risky situation which endangers the rescued people and the crew of Humanity 1," said Hall.

The "hundreds of people on board other nongovernmental organization rescue ships should also immediately be assigned a place of safety where they can disembark and receive assistance," she added.

Aboubakar Soumahoro, an Italian-Ivorian member of the lower chamber of Italy's parliament, traveled to Sicily to see first-hand the plight faced by the migrants, and to condemn what he called the new government's "inhumane" anti-immigrant policies.

"Free all the people, free them," the Green lawmaker said, noting that the migrants have endured "trauma... [and] everything that we can define as prolonged suffering, a hell."

Many migrants escaping war, violence, the climate emergency, and economic privation make arduous and frequently deadly journeys across northern Africa before setting out to sea in often dangerously overcrowded or unstable vessels in a bid to reach Europe.

The Italian Interior Ministry says more than 88,000 migrants--most of them from Egypt and Tunisia--have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year, compared with 55,000 arrivals over the same period in 2021.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, last year 3,231 migrants were recorded as dead or missing at sea in the Mediterranean and northwestern Africa, an increase from 1,881 in 2020 and 1,510 in 2019.

"Even greater numbers may have died or gone missing along land routes through the Sahara Desert and remote border areas," the agency added.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other organizations have documented "widespread and systematic" abuses, including torture, sexual violence, forced disappearance, extortion, and other human rights crimes perpetrated by authorities in Libya, who are ostensibly offering migrants voluntary "assisted returns" to their countries of origin.

"It is disgraceful that the Italian government continues to assist Libyan authorities in violating their people's human rights," said Hall. "It adds insult to injury that the Italian government also refuses disembarkation to those who managed to leave that country."

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Italy failed to respond in time to a distress call from a sinking vessel carrying more than 400 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in 2013. Over 200 men, women, and children drowned as a result.

In June 2019, Carola Rackete, a German activist and captain of Sea-Watch 3, a rescue ship carrying 53 exhausted migrants, was arrested after attempting to dock at Lampedusa. Matteo Salvini, the far-right anti-immigrant interior minister at the time--he's now deputy prime minister--accused Rackete of committing an "act of war" against Italy.

However, Italian Judge Alessandra Vella ruled that Rackete was "doing her duty saving human lives" and ordered her freed.

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