Three vessels run by charities in the Mediterranean Sea are awaiting permission to disembark in Italy or Malta as those on board need urgent help in the face of dwindling supplies and deteriorating weather conditions.
The ships operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), SOS Méditerranée and SOS Humanité, have been at sea for more than a week, carrying nearly 1,000 people in total.
Italy’s new right-wing government acknowledged receipt of their disembarkation requests but did not give the green light to their entry into port.
“The last request was made last night but we received no response,” Riccardo Gatti, MSF team leader aboard the Geo Barents, told Al Jazeera via video message.
Similar requests forwarded to the Maltese government went unanswered.
Gatti said on Saturday the Geo Barents entered Italian waters to shelter from an impending storm, carrying 572 people on board, including an 11-month-old child and three pregnant women.
MSF media adviser Candida Lobes said water was being rationed and food supplies were also dwindling. Due to overcrowding, respiratory and skin infections were also spreading.
“The situation is simply unacceptable,” Lobes said.
European maritime and humanitarian organization SOS Méditerranée has called on authorities to comply with international obligations and provide a predictable disembarkation system.
“Survivors recovered from distress at sea should no longer be traded in political debates,” the organization said in a statement Thursday.
Elisa Brivio, press officer for SOS Méditerranée, told Al Jazeera that 234 people were on board her ship Ocean Viking, including 40 unaccompanied minors.
“Not everyone can sleep below deck, we prioritize women and children,” Brivio said. “The others are sleeping outside and yesterday we set up protective tents to protect them from the winds and the storm.”
Many of those rescued bear signs of torture and ill-treatment.
Till Rummenhohl, chief operating officer of SOS Humanity, said the 179 people aboard Humanity 1 were “fleeing detention camps in Libyawhere they faced great violence.
If no country offers a security post, they may be pushed back into international waters.
“[This] would be a clear violation of international law and the Geneva Convention,” Rummenhohl told Al Jazeera. “It is their human right to seek asylum and seek safety.”
Italy’s far-right government
Italy formed its first far-right government since the end of World War II last month, with Giorgia Melon become the first woman to hold the post of Prime Minister.
Rome insisted that the countries whose flag these NGO boats are flying should take responsibility for migrants and refugees on board.
The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking and Geo Barents and the German-flagged Humanity 1 were prevented from docking, while Italian patrols, including one carrying 456 people who arrived in Calabria on Thursday, were allowed to disembark .
Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi told local media that the government intended to give flag-bearing countries an “immediate signal”.
“We cannot bear the burden of migrants picked up at sea by foreign vessels operating systematically without any coordination with local authorities,” he said.
Piantedosi drafted new measures, alleging non-governmental groups violated procedure by failing to properly coordinate their rescues, a step setting the stage for Italy to close the ports.
Charities have denied circumventing procedures and say it is their duty to rescue those in distress at sea.
The German Embassy this week urged Italy to provide rapid aid, saying NGO ships have made an important contribution to saving lives at sea.
Norway has stated that it takes no responsibility under human rights conventions or the law of the sea towards persons on board private vessels flying the Norwegian flag.
According to the UN refugee agency, coastal states such as Italy and Malta are required to accept people from rescue ships “as soon as possible” and governments should cooperate to provide a place of safety for survivors.
“It is frankly absurd that the Italian and Maltese governments have not yet offered them a place of safety,” Matteo De Bellis, asylum and migration researcher at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera.
“This incident marks a step backwards on the part of the Italian authorities in particular since the new government is resurrecting policies that we have already seen implemented in 2018 and 2019,” added De Bellis, referring to a “closed ports” policy implemented by then Interior Minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini.
“These policies were and continue to be in violation of international law,” he said.
“It is clear that European states must share responsibility for assisting those in need, but it is equally clear that Italy and Malta must cooperate in good faith to ensure that those rescued at sea benefit from a safe place.”