SOS HUmanity rescuing asylum seekers at sea. Photo: Max Cavallari / SOS Humanity

Italy stops 35 asylum seekers on NGO ship disembarking


German organisation SOS Humanity’s ship Humanity 1 is first big test of far-right government’s immigration policy. Children, the old and ‘vulnerable’ were allowed off when the boat docked in Sicily. Hundreds of asylum seekers are still at sea on three other rescue ships.

Italy’s new far-right government prevented 35 asylum seekers from disembarking from an NGO ship, stating they did not qualify for asylum.

The government allowed the ship Humanity 1, run by the German search-and-rescue organisation SOS Humanity to enter the port of Catania on Saturday night. Allowed to disembark were children and sick or “vulnerable” people.

In total, 144 of the 179 rescued people were moved to a reception centre following a medical inspection.

The remaining 35 were left on the ship; it is likely they will be pushed back into international waters. Most of the rescued were from Libya.

“Right now, in the port of Catania there is a selective disembarkation under way,” tweeted Italy’s only black legislator in the lower chamber, Aboubakar Soumahoro, who met Humanity 1 at the Catania port. “Worn bodies of castaways already exhausted by cold, fatigue, trauma and torture are considered objects by Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.”

Twitter post from Italian MP Aboubakar Soumahoro regarding Humanity 1

Government following up on pledges

The decision to not allow all to come ashore is not surprising. This is one of the pledges upon which the far-right coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) party, won the general election on September 25th.

Meloni once said Italy should “repatriate migrants back to their countries and then sink the boats that rescued them”. Her government promised to introduce hardline measures to block the arrival of asylum seekers from north Africa.

Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, insists that countries whose flag the NGO-run ships fly must take the refugees and migrants instead.

SOS Humanity challenged the decision. The NGO further argues as all passengers were rescued at sea it qualified them for a safe port under international law.

On Sunday, Italy ordered the Humanity 1 to leave the port of Catania. However, its captain refused to comply “until all survivors rescued from distress at sea have been disembarked”, said SOS Humanity. The vessel remains moored at the port.

Condition of asylum seekers

Wasil Schauseil, a spokesperson for SOS Humanity, said the group’s doctor was asked by the Italian authorities to make a selection of those in a bad medical condition. “Our doctor replied [that] everyone is in a vulnerable situation, so she would not make the selection,” said Schauseil.

Eventually, Italian physicians boarded the ship and carried out examinations to determine which people had medical conditions requiring immediate attention and that classified them as vulnerable.

“The doctors declared 36 people not in an emergency. After receiving the news, one person collapsed and lost consciousness and had to be taken by an ambulance,” Schauseil said.

“That is why 35 people are onboard. You can imagine the condition of the people. It is very devastating.”

In a press release on Sundy, SOS Humanity stated it is taking legal action against Italy. It said: “SOS Humanity is taking legal action against an Italian government decree and the fact that 35 survivors on board Humanity 1 are not allowed to go ashore. This was announced by the civil search and rescue organisation for Monday.”

SOS Humanity also announced it will initiate a fast-track proceeding in the civil court in Catania to ensure “the right of the protection seekers on board the Humanity 1 is guaranteed to access a formal asylum procedure on land as a matter of urgency. SOS Humanity demands that all 35 survivors must be allowed to disembark the ship immediately.”

Three more ships awaiting permission to dock

Three other ships carrying 900 more rescued asylum seekers remain at sea. Two are in Italian waters and one in international waters. Their requests for a safe port have gone unanswered despite “critical” conditions onboard.

The NGOs operating the ships reported people sleeping on floors and decks. There is also the spread of fever-inducing infections and scabies, and food and medical supplies nearing depletion. Some have been on the ships for more than two weeks.

The Geo Barents (sailing under the Norway flag) is carrying 572 people. The German-run Rise Above, carrying 93, entered Italian waters over the weekend to seek protection from storm-swollen seas. Meanwhile the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediteranee has 234 onboard. It remains in international waters south of the strait of Messina.

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