More than 160 rescued migrants have been left stranded aboard ships in the Meditterranean following rescue operations after Rome’s hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini blocked the vessels from entering Italian waters.
The Spanish migrant rescue organisation Proactiva Open Arms picked up more than 120 stranded migrants in two separate operations off the Libyan coast on Thursday and Friday.
Its founder, Oscar Camps, took to Twitter to describe a threat to life as the rescue was underway. He said the migrants fleeing the conflict in Libya were on a craft that was taking on water as it sank. The people rescued were said to be fleeing fighting and had “unequivocal signs of violence” on their bodies.
Among the rescued migrants were two children and two pregnant women, with one reportedly going into labour.
The rescue brought the total number of migrants aboard the Open Arms to 123, after a previous rescue operation saved 55 people stranded in a wooden boat, most of whom are believed to have come from Eritrea.
According to Proactiva Open Arms, many of those rescued showed signs of having escaped slavery, torture and sexual abuse.
Late on Thursday, Mr Salvini banned the Spanish-flagged vessel from Italian waters.
This most recent standoff is a sign of heightened tension between search and rescue NGOs and the Italian government over activity in the Mediterranean.
Mr Salvini, the right-wing leader who is also deputy prime minister, has won popular support amid rising discontent over the arrival, in Italy, of refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa.
On August 1, the Italian government blocked the Alan Kurdi, a ship operated by the German NGO Sea-Eye, from entering its territorial waters.
A deal is currently being negotiated to provide safe passage for the 40 rescued migrants who are still on board.
Private sea rescue organisations also face increased fines, with Proactiva Open Arms reporting that it was threatened with a fine of between 200,000 and 900,000 Euros for returning to the Libyan coast to conduct further operations.
Last week, images were released on social media showing Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee crews training with new equipment in Marseilles before of the start of rescue operations by the newly chartered Ocean Viking.
MSF announced its return to search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean last month.
In a speech, MSF International President Dr Joanne Lui said: “More than 8,000 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea since the start of the year. And during this time there have been virtually no humanitarian vessels in the area. Four hundred and twenty-six people have already died.”
Dr Lui criticised the “deadly logic” of European governments who have prevented search and rescue operations and attacked the use of public money to fund interceptions by the Libyan coastguard.
According to the UN’s migration agency, the arrival of refugees to Europe across the Mediterranean has fallen dramatically over the past year.
On July 26 the agency reported that 36,670 migrants and refugees had entered Europe in 2019, a 35 per cent decrease from the 54,978 that arrived during the same period last year.
But the journey remains perilous. Dr Lui notes that “in 2019 one person dies for every 10 who arrive in Europe by sea.”