A charity whose rescue ship was prevented by Italy from disembarking 35 migrants rescued at sea has taken legal action against the country, accusing it of breaching European law and the articles of the UN’s Refugee Convention.
German-flagged Humanity 1, which carried 179 migrants it rescued in the Mediterranean in October, was allowed to dock in Catania, Sicily at the weekend to allow 144 of them to disembark.
Among the migrants were women with children, more than 100 unaccompanied minors and people with medical emergencies.
However, after a vetting process carried out on board by Italian authorities, 35 of the migrants were deemed not vulnerable enough and were barred from disembarking.
The ship’s captain rejected Italian orders to leave the Sicilian port on Sunday and said he would not comply “until all survivors rescued from distress at sea have been disembarked”.
Later on Sunday, a second rescue vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was allowed to enter the Sicilian port for a partial disembarkation.
The ship, Geo Barents, carried 572 rescued migrants, including three pregnant women and more than 60 minors, who had spent more than 10 days aboard the vessel.
After a vetting process conducted on board, it was allowed to disembark 357 migrants while the remaining 215 were denied entry.
Juan Matias Gil, MSF’s head of mission, said survivors were being “held hostage by inhumane political decisions”.
“A rescue operation can only be considered terminated once all survivors are disembarked in a place of safety,” the medical charity wrote on Twitter.
“The partial and selective disembarkation, such as suggested in the Italian government’s decree is heinous and can't be considered lawful according to maritime conventions.”
Four ships — the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking and Geo Barents, and the German-flagged Rise Above and Humanity 1 — rescued more than 1,000 migrants in distress at sea, some as many as 16 days ago, who were trying to reach Europe.
Italy has faced mounting pressure to let the humanitarian ships dock but Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s two-week-old government has been reluctant to do so.
EU Commission spokeswoman on migration called on all member states to fulfil their "legal and moral duty to save lives at sea".
“We encourage all relevant authorities to cooperate with each other to provide a suitable place of safety for the people on board to ensure the disembarkation," Anitta Hipper told journalists on Monday.
SOS Mediterranee, the NGO that operates the Ocean Viking, said it had asked the maritime authorities of France, Spain and Greece to assist after the vessel, which was carrying 234 people, spent more than 10 days stranded at sea.
Malta and Italy repeatedly refused to grant the vessel permission to disembark the migrants.
Italian legislator Aboubakar Soumahoro made an impassioned plea at the weekend to the government to stop its “shameful” blocking of safe landing for the rescue ships.
Speaking to journalists in Catania, where two out of the four rescue ships were allowed to dock, Mr Soumahoro, who was recently elected on a Greens-Left alliance ticket, accused Ms Meloni’s coalition of staging a “witch hunt” against migrants to distract the nation from other pressing issues such as high energy prices.
In a public “appeal”, the Italian MP asked Italian President Sergio Mattarella to “intervene to ensure compliance with international law and constitution”.
Mr Soumahoro said Italy was contravening Article 10 of its constitution by not complying with international law, “which means the Geneva Convention and the International Declaration of Human Rights”.
Ocean Viking and Rise Above, another rescue ship, remain stuck at sea, with no port willing to accept the people they rescued.
Humanity 1 remains moored at the port, with the captain and migrants on board.