An organization running a charity ship in the Mediterranean expressed hope yesterday for finding a safe port for its 356 rescued migrants after another nongovernmental organization (NGO) vessel docked in Italy, ending a week-long standoff.
The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated by two French humanitarian groups, completed four rescue missions from Aug. 9 to Aug. 12, and has been on standby in international waters about 32 nautical miles from European shores between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa since Aug. 15.
The NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) welcomed the arrival of Open Arms with more than 80 migrants in Lampedusa, but said that the ship it operates with, the SOS Méditerranée, remains blocked at sea with 356 "vulnerable men, women and children."
"As maritime law stipulates, we've been asking Italian and Maltese search and rescue coordination centers for a safe port since we made our first rescue on Aug. 9," said Frederic Penard, head of operations for SOS Méditerranée.
"For the time being we've had no reply from Italy and a rather negative one from Malta," he told Agence France-Presse (AFP) by phone.
The crew has been at pains not to relate the travails of the Open Arms charity rescue vessel which finally disembarked its 83 migrants on Italy's Lampedusa island overnight Tuesday. They were allowed to disembark after a local prosecutor ordered the ship seized as part of a probe into far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for preventing the ship from docking.
Many migrants had been on the Open Arms for 19 days. The Open Arms was anchored off the coast of Lampedusa, which was the scene of mass arrivals for years before Salvini closed Italy's ports to the charity ships who rescue people setting out from Africa in search of a better life in Europe. Salvini has argued that Italy, which lies close to the Libyan coast, should no longer be the main gateway for migrants fleeing Africa for Europe. He accuses the NGOs and charities of becoming "taxis" for people-smuggling gangs.
The Ocean Viking crew did not want a repeat of scenes aboard the Open Arms which saw desperate migrants jumping into the sea in the hope of swimming to Lampedusa, although word has now spread that that ship has docked.
MSF called on Europe to urgently find a solution to the repeated stand-offs barring humanitarian rescue ships carrying migrants from the nearest safe ports. EU member states have long grappled with a common response to migration inflows from northern Africa via the Mediterranean. In June, eight of the 28 EU countries, including France and Germany signaled a clear intention to move forward with a new system called a "solidarity mechanism." However, they have failed to persuade Italy to allow rescue ships to dock in its ports. Italy's populist government has refused to allow ships carrying people saved from sea to dock as long as too few EU countries promise to regularly admit such migrants.