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Italy blocks 35 migrants from entering Sicily port

Published November 6, 2022last updated November 6, 2022

Italy granted rescue ship Humanity 1 access to a port in Sicily, but dozens of male migrants were barred from disembarkment. Only minors and those in need of medical care were allowed to enter.

Italy rescue ship Humanity 1 at the port of Catania
SOS Humanity has slammed Italy's move to not allow some migrants to disembark Image: Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images

A German humanitarian vessel carrying 179 people — including 100 unaccompanied minors — was allowed to enter the Port of Catania in Sicily on Sunday, but 35 men on board were blocked from getting off the ship. 

The ship would only be welcomed long enough to disembark minors or help those in need of immediate medical care, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi had said on Friday.

The youngest child on the ship is said to be only seven months old.

The captain of the vessel has reportedly refused to leave the Port of Catania despite orders. 

Situation 'tense' aboard rescue ship Humanity 1

Thirty-five people 'held hostage' onboard

Some 35 people are still "held hostage" on the vessel, said Till Rummenhohl, head of Operations at the German-run charity SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1.

"We had health authorities on board who decided who's weak enough, who is basically in urgent medical case and who's not," Rummenhohl told DW. 

Rummenhohl spoke of "enormous frustration" on board the ship. 

"The people are not really sure what's happening to them. They have an uncertain future. They are afraid of being pushed back from Italy, into international waters or even to Libya. That's their greatest fear," he said. 

Mirka Schaefer, advocacy officer at SOS Humanity, has denounced Piantedosi's decision to only allow vulnerable people to disembark.

"The Italian minister of interior's decree is undoubtedly illegal. Pushing back refugees at the Italian border violates the Geneva Refugee Convention and international law," Schaefer said.

SOS Humanity says the 35 men onboard the ship have the "right to apply for asylum and to a formal asylum procedure, which can only be carried out on land."  

Italy's only Black lawmaker in the lower house of 400 deputies, Aboubakar Soumahoro, received Humanity 1 at the port, and tweeted "there is a selective embarkation underway" in Catania.

Later in the day, the Geo Barents, operated by Doctor without Borders, was allowed to dock in Catania.  

The ship is carrying 572 people. It's expected that the Italian government will repeat the same process with this ship, only allowing minors and the sick to disembark. 

Several people on the ships are unwell due to prolonged exposure to the sea and stress.

Two other rescue ships not allowed to disembark in Italy 

The controversy around the rescue ships comes after Italy's new far-right government closed its ports to all such vessels run by nongovernmental organizations. Piantedosi has insisted that ships must take the people rescued at sea to the countries whose flags they fly.

Italy has responded to only the Humanity 1's requests while ignoring two others with hundreds of people people onboard in nearby waters. The ship was allowed to make port only after Germany and France called on Italy to grant the migrants shelter, indicating they would also bear part of the burden.

Piantedosi has described such ships as "islands" that are under the jurisdiction of the flag countries.

Italian lawmaker Soumahoro had condemned the government's closure of ports to NGO ships as a "shame."

Italy's hard line on migration leaves hundreds in limbo

Another ship called Rise Above, with 93 people on board, entered Italian waters to seek protection from dangerous sea conditions but has not received a response on permission to enter a port. The situation onboard is said to be particularly desperate, with all 93 people cramped into a relatively small space of 25 meters (82 feet).

Ocean Viking, run by the European NGO SOS Mediteranee with 234 migrants on board, also remained in nearby waters devoid of any response. A photographer onboard said that conditions at sea were "deteriorating and we expect more rain." The people on board are "not doing well because they are seasick, including the children," he added.

wd, mk/rs (AP, AFP)