A rescue ship carrying 82 refugees has received permission to dock on an Italian island, suggesting the hard line taken on such vessels by Matteo Salvini’s former government may be easing under the new coalition.
Ocean Viking’s crew said that after days of appealing for a port of safety, Italian authorities instructed them to sail to Lampedusa, a small Italian island between Malta and Tunisia.
It is the first time in 2019 that Italy’s government has granted a charity rescue boat permission to disembark.
Italy’s previous government, under a rigid anti-migrant policy led by League's right-wing leader Mr Salvini, banned charity rescue boats from entering Italy’s waters and disembarking migrants on the country’s shores.
But earlier this month, Mr Salvini lost power after he pulled out of a coalition with the Five Star Movement in the hope of triggering an early election he felt confident his party could win.
Instead the Five Star Movement formed an unlikely coalition with the Democratic Party, whose leader Nicola Zingaretti said in a clear dig at Mr Salvini: “We intend to put an end to the season of hatred, rancour and fear.”
Democratic Party leaders promised a fresh approach to migration, and have previously called for a more humane policy on migrant rescue boats, many of which have been forced to make illegal landings to ensure the safety of their passengers as a result of Mr Salvini’s policies.
In June the captain of Sea-Watch 3 was arrested after ramming a border police boat to dock at Lampedusa. In other cases the Italian authorities have seized ships and imposed heavy fines.
The 82 adults and children rescued by the Ocean Viking had been fleeing Libya, where refugees are currently sent in a deal agreed with the EU.
Charity SOS Mediterranée, which is running the ship alongside Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had been offered port of safety by Libya, but had refused it as it was “not a safe place for rescued people to be returned to”.
Human rights groups have long reported the abuse refugees and dangerous conditions at Libyan camps.
Describing those rescued on Ocean Viking, MSF Sea wrote on Twitter: “They tell our medics their skin was burned with melted plastic and they were beaten with sticks. These are just the physical injuries. There are even more horrific stories of abuse and exploitation that have left many with psychological wounds or trauma.”
The passengers had been rescued from two smaller boats – one a rubber dinghy without a working engine launched from Libya by human traffickers – on 8 and 10 September.
“If they had not been saved they would have either drowned at sea or ended up being forced back to Libya, the very country they were fleeing from,” said Yuka Crickmar, a humanitarian affairs officer at MSF.
On Thursday, a 23-year-old Nigerian woman rescued by the Ocean Viking gave birth to a baby boy after being airlifted to Malta with her husband the previous day.
France and Germany have each agreed to take in a quarter of those onboard, and Italy 10 per cent, according to AFP.
Germany and other EU countries have advocated finding at least an interim solution to the impasse over rescues in the Mediterranean Sea, ahead of a meeting of the bloc’s interior ministers on 23 September in Malta.
Italy’s current and previous governments have insisted on more solidarity from fellow European Union nations, saying the migrants set out on their journeys seeking asylum or better economic conditions in Europe as a whole, not necessarily Italy.
Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio, who heads the Five Star Movement, said the Ocean Viking was only being given access to the southern island of Lampedusa because other European states had agreed to take in many of those on board.
“The new government has reopened its seaports [to migrants],” Mr Salvini said on Twitter on Saturday. “Italy returns to being Europe’s refugee camp. Abusive ministers, who hate the Italians.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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