Aid workers are warning a huge backlog in Italy’s overloaded refugee processing system could cost lives as migrants are forced to sleep on rescue boats that should be patrolling the Mediterranean.
In a fresh influx of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty, almost 11,000 asylum seekers were picked up in just 48 hours earlier this week, with dozens drowned or suffocated in packed holds.
But those being taken to supposed safety in Italy face the prospect of sleeping in carparks, tents and overcrowded detention centres as the country struggles to cope with the huge number of arrivals.
The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said a backlog in reception centres and designated “hotspots” where refugees are identified and fingerprinted meant more than 120 people had to sleep on the floor of their rescue ship on Wednesday night.
It arrived in the Sicilian port of Palermo at 7am that morning but authorities did not finish letting its 1,000 passengers off until 8am on Thursday, meaning trapped migrants had to sleep on the ship.
The extraordinary measures delayed the Bourbon Argos’ return to the search and rescue zone north off the Libyan coast, limiting the number of vessels preventing disasters on what has become the deadliest sea crossing in the world.
Aurelie Ponthieu, an MSF humanitarian specialist on board, told The Independent it was the first time refugees had been forced to sleep in a port – a worrying sign of deteriorating conditions as the refugee crisis continues.
“It’s a concerning episode for us because the conditions on the boat are very basic,” she added.
“We don’t have enough toilets and no showers, there’s no proper food delivery. We just have biscuits and juice and most of them haven’t eaten for days in Libya.”
One woman gave birth to a baby girl on the journey to the port, and was prioritised for medical treatment alongside other pregnant, ill and vulnerable refugees.
Others had to wait on the dock to be transferred to temporary accommodation, sitting until 2am in the cold.
Ms Ponthieu said the Bourbon Argos takes 36 hours to make the journey back to the rescue zone and will not arrive until Sunday because of the delay, as people smugglers continue to send overcrowded and unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean.
“We really hope that this is the exception rather than the rule,” she added. "All resources available need to be in postition to prevent deaths at sea.
“We’re talking about people who are weak, who are traumatised by the violence they suffered, they all talk about the violence in Libya and the fear they were feeling there.”
With the migrant route over the Aegean Sea virtually closed by the controversial EU-Turkey deal, which is seeing refugees intercepted, detained in Greece and threatened with deportation, the Central Mediterranean has once again become the dominant sea route to Europe.
At least 140,000 migrants have reached Italy since the start of the year – compared with 154,000 in the entire of 2015 - and around 3,100 have died making the perilous trip.
Refugee crisis - in pictures
Refugee crisis - in pictures
A child looks through the fence at the Moria detention camp for migrants and refugees at the island of Lesbos on May 24, 2016.
Ahmad Zarour, 32, from Syria, reacts after his rescue by MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) while attempting to reach the Greek island of Agathonisi, Dodecanese, southeastern Agean Sea
Syrian migrants holding life vests gather onto a pebble beach in the Yesil liman district of Canakkale, northwestern Turkey, after being stopped by Turkish police in their attempt to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on 29 January 2016.
Refugees flash the 'V for victory' sign during a demonstration as they block the Greek-Macedonian border
Migrants have been braving sub zero temperatures as they cross the border from Macedonia into Serbia.
A sinking boat is seen behind a Turkish gendarme off the coast of Canakkale's Bademli district on January 30, 2016. At least 33 migrants drowned on January 30 when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.
A general view of a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany
Refugees protest behind a fence against restrictions limiting passage at the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Since last week, Macedonia has restricted passage to northern Europe to only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are considered war refugees. All other nationalities are deemed economic migrants and told to turn back. Macedonia has finished building a fence on its frontier with Greece becoming the latest country in Europe to build a border barrier aimed at checking the flow of refugees
A father and his child wait after being caught by Turkish gendarme on 27 January 2016 at Canakkale's Kucukkuyu district
Migrants make hand signals as they arrive into the southern Spanish port of Malaga on 27 January, 2016 after an inflatable boat carrying 55 Africans, seven of them women and six chidren, was rescued by the Spanish coast guard off the Spanish coast.
A refugee holds two children as dozens arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos
A child, covered by emergency blankets, reacts as she arrives, with other refugees and migrants, on the Greek island of Lesbos, At least five migrants including three children, died after four boats sank between Turkey and Greece, as rescue workers searched the sea for dozens more, the Greek coastguard said
Migrants wait under outside the Moria registration camp on the Lesbos. Over 400,000 people have landed on Greek islands from neighbouring Turkey since the beginning of the year
The bodies of Christian refugees are buried separately from Muslim refugees at the Agios Panteleimonas cemetery in Mytilene, Lesbos
Macedonian police officers control a crowd of refugees as they prepare to enter a camp after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
A refugee tries to force the entry to a camp as Macedonian police officers control a crowd after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
Refugees are seen aboard a Turkish fishing boat as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to Lesbos
An elderly woman sings a lullaby to baby on a beach after arriving with other refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
A man collapses as refugees make land from an overloaded rubber dinghy after crossing the Aegean see from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos
A girl reacts as refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Refugees make a show of hands as they queue after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
People help a wheelchair user board a train with others, heading towards Serbia, at the transit camp for refugees near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija
Refugees board a train, after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Macedonia is a key transit country in the Balkans migration route into the EU, with thousands of asylum seekers - many of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia - entering the country every day
An aerial picture shows the "New Jungle" refugee camp where some 3,500 people live while they attempt to enter Britain, near the port of Calais, northern France
A Syrian girl reacts as she helped by a volunteer upon her arrival from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, after having crossed the Aegean Sea
Refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Beds ready for use for migrants and refugees are prepared at a processing center on January 27, 2016 in Passau, Germany. The flow of migrants arriving in Passau has dropped to between 500 and 1,000 per day, down significantly from last November, when in the same region up to 6,000 migrants were arriving daily.
The vast majority of refugees arriving come from African nations including Nigeria, Eritrea, Guinea, Gambia, Sudan, the Ivory Coast and Somalia.
But in a concerning trend, Libyan families are now making the crossing from their home country, which has become the main launching point for people smugglers exploiting widespread lawlessness and conflict between government forces, rebels and Isis.
Traffickers frequently imprison and extort migrants, torturing, beating and even gang raping asylum seekers in exchange for ransoms before letting them attempt the treacherous sea crossing to Europe.
Those who arrive in Italy are met by a lengthy system of processing and checks, with refugees first being registered, photographed and fingerprinted at “hotspots” where they can be detained for a legal maximum of 72 hours.
Authorities decide if they are eligible to apply for asylum, sending prospective refugees to reception centres and issuing others with notices ordering them to leave Italy by their own means within seven days – an option few take.
But the reception centres are full, forcing asylum seekers to overstay in hotspots and pushing the backlog back to rescue ships themselves.
Valentina Bollenback, from Save the Children, said “incredibly distressed” refugees are being left in overcrowded and traumatic conditions after surviving disasters at sea.
“Reception centres are at their maximum – if not over capacity,” she said.
“Unaccompanied children get disheartened by the situation and want to leave, which is very worrying and dangerous as they are so vulnerable.”
She gave the example of one 15-year-old Somali boy who had taken four months to travel from his home to Libya, walking for days before being taken on a pick-up truck with smugglers through the Sahara, then being detained and tortured by gangs in Libya.
If he is not given official permission to depart soon - he will attempt the journey to join family in Sweden or Switzerland alone.
The influx continued on Thursday with the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers, as traffickers send huge numbers of boats into the Mediterranean in the last of the calm weather.
It came as the European Union launched a new joint border guard force aiming to stem the flow, after more than 1.3 million people arrived in 2015.
The body, with 1,000 staff and a reserve pool of 1,500 border guards designated by member states has started operations on the Bulgarian border with Turkey on an increasingly favoured land route into Europe.
The new European Border and Coast Guard also incorporates existing Frontex operations in the main arrival points in Greece, Italy and the Western Balkans.
Plans were drawn up to distribute asylum seekers around the EU according to a quota system last year but many countries, including the UK, have refused to take part in the scheme.
On Friday, Italy's foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni said his country “would appreciate” an agreement between the European Union and African countries similar to the one reached with Turkey to curb migration flows across the Aegean into Greece.
Speaking in Ankara Mr Gentiloni praised the refugee deal struck between the EU and Turkey in March, saying “we need to have similar agreement to solve, or at least manage, migration flows from Africa.”
The Italian Embassy has not responded to The Independent's request for a comment.Reuse content