About 400 migrants aboard two border patrol ships disembarked in a Sicilian port yesterday after a half-dozen European countries promised to take some of them in rather than leave Italy alone to process their asylum claims.
Italy's hardline, anti-migrant government had kept the two military ships from docking at Pozzallo for two days until other countries stepped up in the latest standoff over migrant rescues.
Yesterday morning, the ships came into port and disembarked their passengers, who were seen being screened at dawn. The women and children had already come ashore. Doctors at the scene said one of the men was hospitalized in critical condition with pneumonia, while the others were in generally good health but suffering from scabies.
On Sunday, Germany, Spain and Portugal each agreed to respectively accept 50 of the migrants, following similar offers by France and Malta. They were responding to a request by the Italian premier, who sent individual letters to each EU member asking for a firm gesture of solidarity.
But not everyone agreed. The Czech Republic rebuffed the appeal and called the distribution plan a "road to hell" that would just encourage more human traffickers.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has spearheaded Italy's tough line on migration, said the redistribution deal was just a temporary solution and that the ultimate goal is for Libya to be considered a safe enough haven for migrants to be returned. Italy is also pushing for the EU to fund "hotspots" in migrants' home countries where asylum bids can be processed.
Salvini said the EU has a "bipolar" relationship with Libya, providing training and boats to beef up its coast guard, but then refusing to consider it a safe port where migrants can be brought back.
"What is prohibited today can be normalized tomorrow," he said of Libya's status as a safe haven. "The European Union should convince itself that this is the only way to get out of this problem."
International law requires those rescued at sea to be brought to a safe port; humanitarian groups say Libya hardly constitutes that, given widespread torture and abuse reported by migrants in Libyan detention centers.
Asked about the issue yesterday, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud repeated that no European ship participating in a rescue mission can return migrants to Libya "because we don't consider it a secure country."
The European Commission welcomed the fact that the two ships had disembarked their passengers and that six EU countries had stepped forward, but said such "ad hoc solutions cannot be sustainable in the long term," a spokesman said.
Aid workers at the docks in Pozzallo said the migrants were traumatized and needed care. They expressed alarm that families had likely been separated when the women and children were allowed off the ships, but not the men.
"The reality is that many among these women are very young girls and the children are very young and need their relatives," U.N. refugee agency spokesman Marco Rotunno said.
"It is unacceptable that these people are blocked onboard and that are not allowed to disembark and that their final destination is being negotiated while they are blocked," he added. "Disembarking in a safe port should be granted immediately and a fair relocation should be decided at a later stage."
The migrants had set off from Libya in a large fishing boat on Friday. Italy and Malta both refused to let the ship dock, and eventually the migrants were transferred onto two vessels: one participating in the EU border patrol agency's Mediterranean search and rescue mission and one from the Italian border agency.
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