A charity rescue vessel vowed Saturday to bring 41 shipwrecked migrants into port in Lampedusa in defiance of far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini who has tried to close Italian ports to the ships.
Mediterranea’s Italian-flagged Alex announced it was heading to the southern island after waiting nearly two days with the rescued migrants and asylum-seekers on the small sailboat’s deck.
“In view of the intolerable hygiene conditions aboard, the Alex has declared a state of emergency and is sailing towards Lampedusa, the only possible safe port for landing.” Mediterranea said in a tweet.
Italian populist Salvini last month issued a decree that would bring fines of up to 50,000 euros ($57,000) for the captain, owner and operator of a vessel “entering Italian territorial waters without authorisation”.
Authorities on Lampedusa last week seized another rescue ship belonging to German aid group Sea-Watch after it forced its way into port with dozens of rescued migrants on board and arrested its captain, Carola Rackete.
An Italian judge this week ordered her freed as she had been acting to save lives, a decision which sparked Salvini’s ire.
Two other investigations, on charges of helping people smugglers and resisting the authorities are still underway after she forced her way past Italian customs vessels.
A third rescue ship, German charity Sea-Eye’s vessel Alan Kurdi, carrying 65 shipwrecked migrants rescued off Libya on Saturday arrived and held its position in international waters off Lampedusa.
“We are waiting in international waters off the island of Lampedusa,” Sea-Eye tweeted from the Alan Kurdi.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer tweeted that Germany was ready to take in some of those rescued “as part of a European-solidarity solution.”
Sea-Eye said the 64 men and one woman were rescued from an overloaded blue dinghy lacking sufficient drinking water, and there was no satellite phone or navigation aid on board.
Salvini accuses NGO rescue vessels of helping smugglers and has said Alex should sail for the Maltese capital Valetta after 13 “vulnerable” people were on Friday taken to Lampedusa, leaving 41 on board.
Malta also told the Alex to go to Valletta to disembark the migrants, but Mediterranea said the journey would be too arduous and the boat would likely be seized if it did.
Photographs showed dozens of migrants and asylum-seekers seeking shelter from the sun under survival blankets on the narrow deck of the 18-metre (59-foot) sailboat.
“In these conditions it is impossible to face 15 hours of sailing. We are waiting for Italian or Maltese naval arrangements to take these people on board,” Mediterranea’s Alessandra Sciurba said on Twitter.
She said that while Italy had taken families and pregnant women from the small vessel, “all non-accompanied minors remain on board, including an 11-year-old.”
Mediterranea consists mainly of left-wing activists, the avowed enemy of Salvini, who has seen his popularity and that of his Lega party rise thanks to his tough stance against migrant rescue ships.
A poll published in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday said 59 percent of Italians approved of Salvini’s closing ports NGO vessels.
Salvini on Saturday repeated his call for reform of the European Union’s Dublin rules, which stipulate that asylum requests be handled by the country where they first arrive.
Despite Salvini’s apparent firmness about closing Italian ports to migrants, dozens of migrants and asylum-seekers continue to arrive in Italy by other means, some rescued by Italian authorities.
Interior ministry figures showed 191 had arrived by sea over the last week.
On Wednesday, four people were rescued after a makeshit vessel carrying 86 people across the Mediterranean from Libya sank off the Tunisian coast. All the others are missing or dead.
The Italian judge in last week’s Sea-Watch case ruled that neither Libya nor Tunisia were safe countries for migrants.
Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi, has long been a major transit route for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, desperate to reach Europe.
On Tuesday night, 53 migrants were killed in an air strike on their detention centre in a Tripoli suburb.