(Update: adds info throughout, changes lead, headline)
Rome, Nov 8 (EFE).- Italian authorities on Tuesday allowed over 200 migrants to disembark from a humanitarian ship that had been docked at the port of Catania for over three days.
The 212 migrants, who were among 572 people rescued at sea in the central Mediterranean two weeks ago, had initially been refused entry into Italy after a health inspection.
The head of the rescue mission of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Juan Matias Gil, said it was “with great relief” that Italian health ministry experts had returned to the ship to examine the migrants and allow them off the vessel.
On Monday, two of the migrants on board had jumped ship and swam to shore, with Gil pointing out that “they prefer to go with the police than to return to the ship”.
The Geo Barents docked at the port of Catania on Saturday with 572 migrants on board, but initially only those considered “vulnerable” – essentially women, minors and sick people – were allowed off the ship.
Prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government has pledged to stop migration flows from the Middle East and North Africa.
Italy’s infrastructure minister, anti-migrant firebrand Matteo Salvini pushed for a policy of only allowing vulnerable people from disembarking the migrant rescue vessels, and has stated that others should be taken to the nation whose flag is flown by the ships.
International maritime law, however, requires that “everyone rescued at sea be promptly disembarked and delivered to a ‘place of safety’,” the United Nations has said.
“Saving lives and preventing deaths and injuries must remain States’ collective priority. The law of the sea requires that persons in distress at sea be rescued and assisted,” the UN said in a statement.
Italy’s new legislation meant that two humanitarian vessels remained stuck at Sicilian ports – the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents and the German-flagged Humanity 1, which remains in Catania.
Salvini was previously at loggerheads with NGOs that he accused of facilitating illegal migration during his stint as interior minister between 2018-19.
Another humanitarian ship, the Ocean Viking, with 234 migrants on board who were rescued in the central Mediterranean 18 days ago, set course for France today after Italian authorities refused it to dock in Catania, the organization SOS Méditerranée said Tuesday.
The vessel left international waters off of Sicily and was heading for the French island of Corsica to disembark the 234 immigrants saved between October 22 and 26, including more than 40 unaccompanied minors, internal sources from the organization told EFE.
The new Italian interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, meanwhile, said that Italy would not accept “lessons from anyone” with regard to the human rights of migrants on board the two NGO ships.
The announcement was welcomed by Salvini, who has said that “Italy will not be complicit in human trafficking” while praising Piantedosi for “a first victory” over the humanitarian NGOs. EFE