A charity ship carrying 47 rescued migrants has docked in the Sicilian port of Catania after a two-week wait with the crew fearing legal action as Italy’s far-right interior minister tries to stop new arrivals.
The Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3, which had been waiting off the coast of Sicily with the people it rescued in the Mediterranean on January 19, was finally given the permission to anchor in Catania on Thursday after six other countries agreed to take them in.
The exhausted migrants, including 15 minors, cheered and hugged the crew as the ship sailed into the harbour, an AFP correspondent reported.
France, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Luxembourg said they would share the care of the mainly sub-Saharan African group.
It was not clear whether Italy would also host some of them.
The ship had been sheltering from a storm off the coastal town of Syracuse, which had been ready to welcome those saved.
“We have to go to Catania now. That means we are moving away from a port of safety, towards a port where there is a prosecutor, known for his agenda regarding sea rescue NGOs,” the German charity Sea Watch tweeted late on Wednesday.
“If this is not a political move, we don’t know what is. We hope for the best and expect the worst.”
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has warned he is considering legal action against Sea Watch’s crew, accusing it of sailing straight for Italy rather than taking the migrants to closer ports in Libya or Tunisia.
The NGO says it tried but failed to get a response from Tripoli or Tunis.
People rescued at sea have frequently been left in limbo since Italy’s anti-immigration government came to power in July, and on Wednesday Salvini said he was looking to ban all ships with rescued migrants from entering Italian waters.
The decision to send the ship to Catania raised red flags among migration and legal experts who said it might be impounded, as was the case with several rescue vessels previously in different Mediterranean ports.
Should that happen, it would take the last rescue charity ship operating in the central Mediterranean out of action.
The sole remainder would be the Italian Mare Jonio – a surveillance boat that aims to spot migrants in distress but is not equipped to rescue them.
Catania prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has made a name for himself as a legal thorn in the side of the NGOs that rescue migrants at sea.
In March 2018, he impounded the Open Arms ship as part of an investigation into the crew for allegedly aiding illegal migrants by refusing to hand them over to the Libyan coastguard.
The ship was released after a month following a court ruling that Libya could not be considered a safe country because of a lack of safeguards for human rights, but the investigation continues.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee said in December the Aquarius would not sail again after “a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign backed by several European states”.
The rescue ship had been stuck in a French port for two months following the revocation of its registration.