World / Social Issues

Italy to release 116 stranded migrants after EU deal is reached to disperse them


Italy will allow 116 rescued migrants on its Gregoretti coast guard ship to disembark “within hours,” Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Wednesday, after EU countries agreed to share responsibility for looking after them.

“I will give authorization (for the migrants) to disembark in the coming hours,” the far-right minister wrote on Facebook of the dozens of people he had forced to remain on the boat docked in Sicily for five days.

Italian prosecutors had opened an investigation into the conditions on the coastguard supply vessel where the migrants had only one toilet between them, Italian media reported.

An EU Commission spokeswoman told AFP earlier Wednesday that France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal would join the Italian Roman Catholic church in caring for the migrants.

The commission did not give a breakdown on how the migrants would be shared out between the host countries but the official said most would stay in Italy.

The standoff was immediately set to repeat itself, with Salvini on Wednesday formally banning the Alan Kurdi — a rescue ship run by German charity Sea-Eye — from entering Italian waters after plucking 40 migrants from waters off Libya.

Salvini, also interior minister, has taken a hard line against migrants rescued at sea being brought to Italy, which he says bears an unfair burden in the crisis.

Some 140 migrants, who had set off from Libya, were picked up by Italian patrols and transferred to the coast guard ship Bruno Gregoretti on July 25.

The operation took place on the same day that at least 115 other migrants were feared drowned in a shipwreck off Libya — this year’s deadliest tragedy in the Mediterranean so far, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Several migrants aboard the Gregoretti have already been evacuated for medical attention, including a seven-month pregnant woman, her two children and her partner as well as 15 minors.

But Salvini had insisted that the remaining migrants would not be able to leave the vessel until other European countries agreed to take them in.

French President Emmanuel Macron said last week that 14 EU members had approved a plan to redistribute refugees rescued in the Mediterranean and eight said they would actively take part.

The proposal drew Salvini’s ire because it still involved allowing migrants to disembark on Italian territory.

“A European solution has been found for the women and men stranded on the ship Gregoretti,” Macron tweeted on Wednesday.

“They will disembark in Italy, then be welcomed in six countries, including France. Our country is true to its principles: responsibility, solidarity and European cooperation.”

Pope Francis on Sunday called on the international community to “act swiftly” to help avoid further deaths.

“I am renewing my call that the international community act swiftly and decisively to avoid that such tragedies repeat themselves and guarantee the safety and dignity of all,” he said Sunday during his weekly Angelus address on St. Peter’s Square.

Former Italian navy chief Giuseppe De Giorgi, who launched the Mare Nostrum maritime rescue plan in 2013, hailed the Gregoretti’s crew who “despite all were committed to accomplishing with honor their duty as sailors to protect lives at sea.

In August 2018, more than 150 people were stranded on the Italian coast guard ship the Diciotti for over a week before an agreement between the church, Albania and Ireland allowed them to disembark.

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