Syrian migrants defy Salvini’s rules in Catania port stand-off

By Gonzalo Sanchez

Catania, Italy, Nov 8 (EFE).- Two Syrian refugees who attempted to defy Italy’s tough migration blockade by leaping from a NGO rescue vessel and swimming to shore have spent the night in the Sicilian port of Catania.

The migrants, who jumped ship Monday, have refused to return to the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) vessel Geo Barents, which saved them from the Mediterranean Sea on October 27. 7.

“They prefer to go with the police than to return to the ship,” Geo Barents’ mission chief Juan Matías Gil told Efe.

The migrants are defying prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government’s new strategy 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.

In the wake of Italy’s new legislation, two humanitarian vessels remain stuck at Sicilian ports – the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents and the German-flagged Humanity 1, which combined have around 250 people onboard, according to Human Rights Watch.

Salvini was previously at loggerheads with NGOs that he accused of facilitating illegal migration during his stint as interior minister between 2018-19.

The two Syrians who jumped ship Monday, named by MSF Sea as Youssouf and Ahmed, had remained on the quay at Catania’s dock for around 24 hours as of Tuesday.

On Monday night a small van remained parked next to them so that they could shelter from the drastic drop in temperatures in the damp port.

Antonio Nicita, senator for the opposition Democratic Party (PD), visited them Monday night and told reporters that “they are fine” and that “they are simply waiting.”

“These are the legal inconsistencies in this case. They have to go down, be heard, make the corresponding requests and move on,” the rescue vessel’s chief lamented.

According to Matías Gil, Salvini’s policy refers to the humanitarian boats that arrive in Italian waters and ports, specifically the Geo Barents and the Humanity 1, but does not use the terms “people” or “migrants”..

Not much is known about the legal situation the Syrian migrants stranded in Catania find themselves in.

MSF is mulling offering them legal assistance, spokeswoman Candida Lobes said.

One of the Syrians, from Damascus, has told doctors that he tried to escape from Libya six times but was always intercepted by the North African country’s coastguard and returned to detention centers where he suffered so much abuse that he now has chronic back pain.

The other left for Europe in the hopes he would be able to bring his four daughters with him, given that they live in an area controlled by armed groups that “kidnap people for ransom and the situation is out of control.”

The two have been able to communicate with their families in the last few hours, after days of being unable to speak with their relatives.

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