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Hundreds of migrants stranded in Mediterranean amid standoff over aid ships

The Open Arms Spanish humanitarian boat has been carrying more than 100 migrants for a week in the central Mediterranean awaiting a safe port to dock, after it was denied entry by Italy and Malta.
The Open Arms Spanish humanitarian boat has been carrying more than 100 migrants for a week in the central Mediterranean awaiting a safe port to dock, after it was denied entry by Italy and Malta.(Valerio Nicolosi/Associated Press)

More than 500 migrants and refugees afloat in the central Mediterranean were in limbo Monday, as the two aid ships that had rescued them searched for a safe port that would take them.

The impasse came days after Italy had announced fines of up to 1 million euros — more than $1.1 million — for ships carrying unauthorized migrants that attempted to dock in Italian ports without permission. It has ordered the seizure of such ships, and arrested the captain of one.

The ships, operated by charities, provide the only search and rescue operations in the international waters where often-unseaworthy boats packed with people attempt to cross from Libya to the nearest European country, Italy.

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Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and a deputy prime minister, has used harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric to build up his own popularity and that of his League party. He has been the main architect of policies that seek to close off the country to further migration from the Middle East and Africa.

Since Friday, 251 people had been rescued from three boats in distress by the vessel Ocean Viking, operated by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym, MSF, and SOS Méditeranée, a European maritime rescue charity. Then, on Monday afternoon, 105 more people were pulled from the water as the flimsy dinghy they were traveling on burst, according to MSF, bringing the total number of people onboard to 356.

While the crew has yet to formally request permission to dock in Italy, the Ministry of the Interior, headed by Salvini, contacted the ship Friday to warn that it would not be allowed to dock in Italy.

“MSF believes that such a notice is seeking to add political drama to human tragedy,” the group said in an emailed statement. “The Ocean Viking will continue to operate in accordance with international laws.”

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Standoffs between charities operating rescue ships and the Italian government have become common since last year, when the new government formed by the League party and the Five-Star Movement banned vessels carrying migrants from its ports. Within days of taking office, the government refused entry to a ship carrying more than 600 people rescued at sea, which ultimately docked in Spain.

The United Nations has criticized the Italian policy of turning away ships, with Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the body’s refugee agency, saying the ships played an “invaluable role in saving the lives of refugees and migrants attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Europe.”

The operators of the Ocean Viking, which has four high-speed rescue boats and a medical clinic onboard, said Monday morning it would remain in international waters near the Libyan coast, as they believed there might be more ships in distress and they still had space for about 80 more people.

The crew now plans to head north and attempt to dock, according to a spokeswoman for MSF. The Libyan Coast Guard had earlier offered to allow the boat to disembark there over the weekend, but the rescue vessel would not return people to Libya, wracked by civil war, because of safety concerns.

“Many of the people we have rescued recount horrific stories of violence, torture, extortion, sexual violence, and forced labor in Libya, as well as arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions,” MSF said in a statement. “We know that migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers experience alarming levels of violence and exploitation in the country.”

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Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, another ship, the Open Arms, run by a Spanish charity group, had 151 rescued migrants and refugees by Monday and had been denied entry into Italian and Maltese ports.

There were originally more people on board, but a man with tuberculosis and two women with medical concerns and their families were evacuated, according to Laura Lanuza, a spokeswoman for Open Arms. A video shared by the organization Monday morning showed dozens of people sleeping in rows on the ship’s deck at dawn. They had been there for 11 days.

“The 151 people who will remain on board need a secure port NOW,” the organization said in a tweet. “Europe has abandoned them.”

Italy, a country on the front line of the arrivals, has often engaged in highly politicized public disputes with these aid ships, as has neighboring Malta. But while Italy has called for a comprehensive European Union-wide plan for sharing the burden of responsibility for the migrants and refugees rescued while traveling to the continent, the country has refused to take part in discussions to chart a way forward.

President Emmanuel Macron of France said last month that eight nations had agreed, in principle, to a plan to resettle refugees and migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.

There were once dozens of rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean, launched after a series of deadly shipwrecks.

And while the numbers of migrants taking the journey across the sea has decreased significantly since mid-2017, the central Mediterranean route has remained deadly, with at least 578 people drowning there so far this year, according to the UN’s migration agency. Thousands have died since the migrant crisis began in 2015.

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