Italy's new government allowed a charity ship to bring ashore 82 migrants in an apparent reversal of the uncompromising, closed-door policy of the previous administration.
A charity rescue ship with 82 migrants aboard received permission Saturday to sail to a tiny southern Italian island, but Italy's foreign minister cautioned against interpreting the OK as a sign the new government is easing its crackdown on such vessels.
Ocean Viking's crew said Italian authorities instructed the ship to sail to Lampedusa. It was expected to arrive at the island later on Saturday.
"The Ocean Viking just received instructions from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre of Rome to proceed to Lampedusa," SOS Mediterranee tweeted.
🔴BREAKING The #OceanViking just received instruction from Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) of Rome to proceed to Lampedusa, Italy, which has been designated as Place of Safety for the 82 survivors rescued in two operations. pic.twitter.com/NKIw22dLZy— SOS MEDITERRANEE (@SOSMedIntl) September 14, 2019
The Norwegian-flagged ship, which had appealed for days for a port of safety, is operated by two humanitarian groups, Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee.
Ocean Viking carried out its first rescue, of 50 migrants who were struggling in an unseaworthy rubber dinghy launched by Libyan-based migrant smugglers, on September 15. The others were rescued the next day. Among the migrants is a 1-year-old boy from Somalia.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said the group comprised 58 men, six women and 18 minors.
"We just heard that we have been assigned a place of safety, we are now on our way" to Lampedusa, said Erkinalp Kesikli, of Doctors Without Borders."
Migrants clapped with joy and excitement.
"We are very happy about the news this morning. It amazes us. This news amazes us," said Myriam Annie Malang, one of the migrants. "We are arriving at a place where people understand and listen to us. We are very happy to learn that we are disembarking in Lampedusa."
Malang said she had been beaten while detained in Libya, a common account of suffering among migrants waiting to depart the northern African country on smugglers' boats. She said she had fled conflict between English- and French-speaking communities in Cameroon.
Reversal of Salvini's hardline stance
The offering of a safe port to the Ocean Viking is a reversal of the hardline stance taken by the country's ex-interior minister Matteo Salvini last year.
The previous government, under a rigid anti-migrant policy, banned charity rescue boats from entering Italy's waters and disembarking migrants on Italy's shores.
Premier Giuseppe Conte's week-old coalition now contains the centre-left Democrats, whose leaders have called for a more humane policy on the rescue boats.
Italy's current and previous governments have insisted on more solidarity from fellow European Union nations, saying the migrants set out on their journeys seeking asylum or better economic conditions in Europe as a whole, not necessarily Italy.
Italy's new foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, leader of the coalition's senior partner, the populist 5-Star Movement, cautioned against concluding his government was softening its stance on private rescue boats.
Sharing of migrants
Luigi Di Maio said the Ocean Viking was only being given access to the southern island of Lampedusa because other European states had agreed to take in many of those on board.
"I believe there's a big misunderstanding about a safe port given to Ocean Viking," Di Maio told reporters. "It was assigned a port because the EU adhered to our request to take the great share of the migrants."
Germany's interior minister said in a report published on Saturday his country is prepared to take in a quarter of migrants rescued off the Italian coast as the European Union tries to find a solution to repeated standoffs involving humanitarian groups' ships.
Germany and other EU countries have advocated finding at least an interim solution to the impasse over rescues in the Mediterranean Sea, ahead of a meeting of the bloc's interior ministers September 23 in Malta.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was quoted as telling Saturday's edition of German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that talks are still ongoing "but if everything remains as discussed, we can take 25% of the people rescued from distress at sea who turn up off Italy."
He said that, in practice, Germany has already taken in around that proportion to date.
Italian state TV on Friday said France is considering a similar arrangement.
"An ad hoc European agreement between Italy, France, Germany, Portugal and Luxembourg has been reached to allow the landing," said French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, referring to the division of the migrants between the five countries.
Di Maio also said he was working on aid deals that would improve economic conditions in the migrants' homelands and to achieve more bilateral repatriation agreements.
He stressed the "principle that whoever can't stay here must go back, and whoever can stay here, is in Europe and not in Italy."
Conte has suggested EU countries that decline to take part could suffer financial penalties.
Doctors Without Borders had pleaded that the migrants not get caught up in the wait for such agreement among European Union countries, many of which have long resisted Italy's appeals for solidarity in accepting the migrants.
"We know that EU governments are trying for an accord, but in the meantime please let us disembark," Doctors Without Borders tweeted earlier on Saturday.
It also tweeted "we're relieved" that they were cleared to sail to Lampedusa.
Italy is trying to set up an automatic system for distributing migrants rescued in the Mediterranean between European countries, diplomatic sources said recently.
France and Germany have reportedly given their green light to the new system, which could also involve Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Spain.