At least 15 more migrants jumped into the sea Tuesday from the Open Arms rescue ship in desperate bids to reach the shores of Italy after 19 days on the boat in deteriorating conditions as Italy refuses to open its ports.
With the situation on board described by Open Arms as “out of control” and “desperate” over Italy’s repeated refusal to allow the migrants into the southern island of Lampedusa, Spain said it was dispatching a naval ship to escort the aid group’s boat and its passengers to a port in the Spanish island of Mallorca.
“After analyzing all the options, this is the most adequate and the one that would allow resolving within this week the humanitarian emergency on board the Open Arms,” the statement said.
But the journey of the Audaz warship from its base in southern Spain to Lampedusa is expected to last three days, adding to the ordeal of the migrants.
Dozens of them have been evacuated in recent days because they were underage or ill, but 83 remain on board.
That was after one migrant jumped off the ship early on Tuesday and was rescued by the Italian coast guard, followed by two groups of nine and five more who launched themselves into the sea wearing orange life vests.
All were seeking the shores of Lampedusa, a short distance away from the anchored ship.
A reporter with the Spanish public broadcaster TVE said the first jumper refused to return to the Open Arms and was brought to Lampedusa instead, prompting others to follow his lead. The reporter said those jumping were “desperate and going mad” after 19 days trapped on board.
Live video showed people wearing life vests floating in the sea, some in groups and some individually, with a coast guard vessel nearby and rubber dinghies trying to reach them.
Open Arms said the Italian coast guard rescued all 15 jumpers and brought them to Lampedusa.
A spokeswoman for the charity, Laura Lanuza, said she heard from Open Arms crew members that “those who remain aboard are threatening to jump as well.” The Open Arms captain previously informed Italian authorities that the crew of 17 can no longer control the situation on board, as frustrated migrants resort to fighting.
Italy’s hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has refused port access to the ship, even though six other European countries have agreed to take in the migrants, who were rescued at sea in early August off the coast of Libya.
Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, said on social media that he has been in touch with Spanish officials to demand that “they do everything to stop the NGO.” He did not specify what he expects Spain to do, and Spain said it was awaiting clarification.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte announced last week that six nations — Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, Romania and Luxembourg — had offered to take the migrants aboard Open Arms.
But in his post, Toninelli complained those countries were waiting until the migrants were on land “and then they will see.”
Impasses involving Italy’s refusal to allow migrant ships to dock started immediately after the populist coalition of the League and the 5-Star Movement took office last June. In the first, a ship made the long trip to Spain with 630 migrants after Madrid opened its ports.
But Spain has changed its approach since then, saying that international marine laws and EU regulations require that rescued people need to be taken to the closest and safest port. It also says that EU members need to find a long-lasting solution for dealing with migration that doesn’t rely so much on just the Mediterranean countries.
Open Arms sailed within a few hundred meters of Lampedusa last week after Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s ban on private rescue boats entering Italy’s waters was overturned by a court. Salvini has appealed that ruling and warned that his ban on docking still holds.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated by two French humanitarian groups and has 356 rescued migrants aboard, has been sailing between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa as it waits for a port of safety to be assigned.
Italy’s standoff with Open Arms has further raised tensions in the country’s failing ruling coalition, as Cabinet members from the 5-Star Movement, including the defense and transport ministers, increasingly question the handling of the rescue ship by Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party.
Toninelli said other European countries were turning their backs on Italy “and there is one person responsible: Matteo Salvini, who has weakened the government and as a consequence our position in Europe.”
Source: Associated Press – Colleen Barry and Aritz Parra