A ship carrying 40 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean issued an ultimatum to Italy Friday: let their desperate passengers off the ship by the end of the day, or sit back and watch as the crew brings them ashore themselves.
The Sea Watch 3, currently anchored off the Italian island of Lampedusa, has been searching for a safe port to take the rescued migrants since saving them from a boat in distress off the Libyan coast on June 12.
Italy’s hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has refused to let the boat dock, instead using his battle with the vessel he calls a “pirate ship” to rally his anti-immigration base. The stand-off, now in its 16th day, has become an international saga. Italy is demanding the Netherlands take responsibility for the migrants, given that the Sea Watch sails under a Dutch flag, while the U.N.’s refugee agency and the EU have urged Rome to end the stalemate by allowing the migrants to disembark.
Sea Watch spokesman Chris Grodotzki told VICE News Friday that the rescued migrants’ physical and psychological conditions were deteriorating, and that they needed to to disembark immediately.
“This is not a game, we’re not playing. We need to get these people off this ship,” he said. “We will not wait another night. We are prepared to disembark them ourselves if the authorities continue to neglect their responsibility.”
In a video shared by Sea Watch, migrants on board appeared desperate. “We can't hold on any longer. It's like we're in a prison because we are deprived of everything,” one Ivorian migrant said.
Grodotzki said two more rescued migrants had been evacuated from the ship by Italian authorities Thursday night for medical reasons, bringing the total number taken off the boat for urgent treatment to 13. There were concerns for the wellbeing of the 40 who remained on board. “People are on edge,” he said.
The Sea Watch 3 says it should be allowed to take the rescued migrants to Italy as it is the nearest safe port, but is being prevented from doing so by the Italian government’s hardline policies. Since coming to power last year, Salvini has cracked down on migrants crossing the Mediterranean. He’s declared Italy’s ports closed to migrant rescue ships, which he accuses of working in league with human trafficking networks, and vowed no rescued migrants will reach Italian shores. Sea Watch is the last remaining rescue boat of 10 which once plied the migration route between Libya and Italy.
Both Salvini and Sea Watch accuse each other of playing political games with the rescued migrants. Salvini initially insisted that the migrants be returned to Libya, currently the scene of fierce militia fighting and an unfolding humanitarian crisis, which Sea Watch said was a breach of international laws stating that rescued people should be taken to a safe port. Sea Watch 3 has repeatedly defied Italy’s orders to leave its waters, insisting the conditions onboard had placed it in a “state of necessity” whereby Italy was obliged to render urgent assistance. Salvini has labelled the ship’s continued approach towards Italian soil as “a provocation and a hostile act.”
On Friday, Salvini repeated his threats against the Sea Watch, calling for the ship to be seized and the migrants deported. “As far as I'm concerned the story should end with the seizure of the ship, arrest and expulsion of the crew, transfer of immigrants to other European states,” he tweeted.
Salvini has said that, given that Sea Watch is a German charity and its ship sails under a Dutch flag, those countries bear ultimate responsibility for the migrants onboard. While the Netherlands has said it has no responsibility to do so, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said Friday he had received offers from a number of EU countries to take in some of the migrants on board the vessel. Italian state media agency ANSA, citing Italian foreign ministry officials, reported that France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal were willing to accept some of the group.
Grodotzki said his organization was confident it was acting legally in its response to the situation, but acknowledged the threat of charges against the crew was real, citing an ongoing Italian criminal investigation into 10 crew members of another German-run migrant rescue ship, the Iuventa. “If you’re in conflict with states, that can happen,” he said. “They’re not giving us a port of safety. Who’s acting outside the law?”
Cover: Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, attends a RAI state TV program in Rome, Wednesday, June 26, 2019.