CATANIA, Sicily — The captain of a charity-run migrant rescue ship refused Italian orders to leave a Sicilian port Sunday after authorities refused to let 35 of the migrants on his ship disembark — part of directives by Italy's new far-right-led government targeting foreign-flagged rescue ships.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni's two-week-old government is refusing safe port to four ships operating in the central Mediterranean that have rescued migrants at sea in distress, some as many as 16 days ago, and is allowing only those identified as vulnerable to disembark.
On Sunday, Italy ordered the Humanity 1 to vacate the port of Catania after disembarking 144 rescued migrants, including with children, more than 100 unaccompanied minors and people with medical emergencies.
But its captain refused to comply "until all survivors rescued from distress at sea have been disembarked," said SOS Humanity, the German charity that operates the ship. The vessel remained moored at the port with 35 migrants on board.
Later Sunday, a second charity ship arrived in Catania, and the vetting process was being repeated with the 572 migrants aboard the Geo Barents ship operated by Doctors Without Borders. The selection was completed by late evening, with 357 allowed off but 215 people blocked on board.
Families were the first to leave the ship. One man cradling a baby expressed his gratitude, saying "Thank you, Geo Barents, thank you," as he left. Another man in a wheelchair was carried down by Red Cross workers.
Yet two other boats run by non-governmental organizations remained stuck at sea with no port willing to accept the people they rescued.
An Italian lawmaker says services are lacking during the selection process
Humanitarian groups, human rights activists and two Italian lawmakers who traveled to Sicily protested the selection process as illegal and inhumane. Italy's new Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi is targeting non-governmental organizations, which Italy has long accused of encouraging people trafficking in the central Mediterranean Sea. The groups deny the claim.
"Free all the people, free them,'' Italian lawmaker Aboubakar Soumahoro said in an emotional appeal directed at Meloni from the Humanity 1 rescue ship.
The passengers have faced "trauma, they have faced everything that we can define as prolonged suffering," said Soumahoro, who spent the night on the ship.
Later at the port, he accused Meloni of playing politics at the expense of "newborns, of women, of people who have suffered traumas of all kinds," including torture in Libyan prisons.
He said neither translators nor psychologists were on hand during Italy's selection process and many of the migrants were from Gambia, unable to speak French, English or Italian.
"Their fault is to speak another language. Their fault is to have another color,'' Soumahoro said, accusing the Italian government of using the migrants to distract from other issues, including high energy prices.
Aboard the Humanity 1, doctors in Italy identified people needing urgent medical care after the ship's doctor refused to make a selection, said SOS Humanity spokesman Wasil Schauseil. Thirty-six people were declared non-vulnerable and were not permitted to disembark, prompting one to collapse and be taken away by an ambulance.
"You can imagine the condition of the people. It is very devastating,″ he said.
Two other ships with rescued migrants remain stuck at sea
Both SOS Humanity and Doctors Without Borders issued statements declaring that all of their passengers were vulnerable after being rescued at sea, and deserving of a safe port under international law. SOS Humanity said it plans to file a civil case in Catania to ensure that all 35 survivors on board have access to formal asylum procedures on land.
Doctors Without Borders emphasized that "a rescue operation is considered complete only when all of the survivors have been disembarked in a safe place."
Two other charity ships carrying rescued migrants remained stuck at sea, with people sleeping on floors and decks and spreading respiratory infections and scabies as food and medical supplies drew low.
The German-run Rise Above, carrying 93 rescued at sea, sought a more protected position in the waters east of Sicily due to the weather, but spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann said Sunday that the crew had not received any communications from Italian authorities.
Poschmann described cramped conditions on the relatively small 25-meter (82-foot) ship.
The Ocean Viking, operated by the European charity SOS Mediteranee, with 234 migrants on board, remained in international waters, south of the Strait of Messina, and got no instructions to proceed to an Italian port, a spokesman said Sunday. Its first rescue was 16 days ago.
"Agitation is evident among the survivors,'' a charity worker named Morgane told The Associated Press on Sunday. Cases of seasickness were soaring after high waves tossed the ship through the night.
"Today, the weather considerably deteriorated, bringing strong winds, rough seas and rain on deck. ... these extreme conditions added suffering," she said.
Italy wants other countries to take in the migrants
The confrontational stance taken by Meloni's government is reminiscent of the standoffs orchestrated by Matteo Salvini, now Meloni's infrastructure minister in charge of ports, during his brief 2018-2019 stint as interior minister. Italy's new government is insisting the countries whose flags the charity-run ships fly must take in the migrants.
In a Facebook video, Salvini repeated his allegations that the presence of the humanitarian boats encourages smugglers.
Nongovernmental organizations reject that claim, saying they are obligated by the law of the sea to rescue people in distress and that coastal nations are obligated to provide a safe port as soon as feasible.
Amnesty International called Italy's stance "disgraceful."
"Italy legitimately expects other EU member states to share responsibility for people seeking asylum, but this does not justify imposing measures that only increase the suffering of already traumatized people," the group said.