On Nov. 7, approximately 250 migrants were stopped from leaving two migrant ships in Catania, Sicily, as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration by the newly elected Italian government.
The decision to block the migrants earned the government the ire of charities, who criticized its handling of the situation.
Migrants halted at Catania
Around 215 people were blocked on one migrant ship, the Geo Barents, while 35 others were stopped on the Humanity 1, a ship run by the German search-and-rescue organization SOS Humanity, the BBC reported.
When Humanity 1 was docked at the port of Catania, 179 people were on board. A medical inspection was initiated, allowing children and those with medical conditions to leave the ship, while authorities denied disembarkment for the remainder. Overall, 144 passengers were relocated, with the remaining people to be sent back to their country of origin.
Meanwhile, the Geo Barents, part of the Norwegian Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), had 357 people leave the ship, from its total of 572 people. The Ocean Viking, another vessel run by the search-and-rescue organization SOS Mediterranee, was invited by France to bring in its passengers there.
Passengers of another boat, the Rise Above, were allowed to disembark on Tuesday, with 89 of its passengers arriving safely at port, Reuters wrote.
Most of the passengers are said to be from Libya, who say they are escaping torture and abuses in their home country and are seeking a better life in Europe, The Guardian reported. Every other boat, operated by non-governmental organizations, was also stopped by the Italian government.
People could be heard shouting “help us” from the Geo Barents. It got so bad that three people were reported to have jumped off the boat before being rescued by police.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said that those denied exit from the ships would be returned and handled by their “flag state.”
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni vowed to stop migrant boats from entering the Mediterranean, beginning by closing off ports to all vessels owned by nongovernmental organizations.
“We must stop illegal departures and human trafficking,” Meloni said, despite her insistence to not “question the right of asylum for those fleeing wars and persecutions.”
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Despite the government’s policies, the captain of Humanity 1 refuses to leave Catania “until all survivors rescued from distress at sea have been disembarked,” SOS Humanity said.
“Survivors have the right to an individual protection check, which can only be done on land. Rejecting the 35 people seeking protection aboard Humanity 1 from territorial waters is a form of collective refusal and is therefore illegal,” the organization said.
On Sunday, SOS Humanity posted on Twitter that it would take legal action against the Italian government, claiming that it was “unlawful” to deny the migrants safe passage. It said it would make legal proceedings to get the people out of Catania and to their asylums.
MSF — known as Doctors Without Borders in English — also criticized the government’s actions, saying it goes against “maritime law conventions.” It also said that “a rescue operation” would truly succeed when all passengers are safely extracted.
“We are relieved that the rescued people are finally safe on land,” Mission Lifeline, the charity that owns the Rise Above, said in a statement, calling out the Italian government for having political motives for leaving them stranded at sea.
Humanitarian groups and other politicians have also called out Meloni’s government for the blocking process.
“Free all the people, free them,” Italian lawmaker Aboubakar Soumahoro said.