A non-profit-run ship carrying 182 migrants rescued on the Mediterranean Sea sailed back and forth between Italy and Malta while awaiting permission to dock at a European port, with its passengers growing increasingly worried about where they would wind up.
Over three days last week, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, a search-and-rescue vessel jointly operated by two aid groups, picked up 217 people from four unseaworthy boats in the central Mediterranean. The migrants had departed from Libya.
The island nation of Malta, a European Union member, on Friday allowed in 35 migrants who were rescued at the country’s request in waters under its responsibility. The 182 remaining on the rescue ship are sleeping on decks and floors, including a newborn baby and 13 other children under age 15.
“Is the EU aware of the situation we are facing?” Kemo Kebbeh, a 25-year-old man from Gambia, asked representatives of SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders who were aboard the Ocean Viking.
He was referring to conditions on the ship but also to the danger and human rights violations migrants face in Libyan detention centres after entering the country seeking the chance to set off for Europe in human traffickers’ boats.
Malta has forwarded Ocean Viking’s request for a safe place to disembark passengers to Norway, France and Italy.
Erkinalp Kelisi of Doctors Without Borders said he had a hard time explaining to the migrants on board the Ocean Viking why they couldn’t be transferred to Malta like the 35 others. Malta and Italy so far have refused to accept any passengers, deferring responsibility to other EU nations.
“They are all people. They are all equal, and the system of disembarkation that is imposed has to be the same,” Kelisi said.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 6,570 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year and 2,260 in Malta. Both nations, typically the nearest arrival point for ships crossing the central Mediterranean, want other EU members to share the load.
The 28-nation bloc hasn’t reached an agreement on an automatic system for determining where rescued migrants are allowed to land and potentially seek asylum.
The Maltese government plans to host a meeting Monday with French, German and Italian authorities in an attempt to formalize a temporary deal to manage the standoffs that can keep migrants stuck at sea for week.
Politicians in favour of blocking the ships accuse NGOs of colluding with smugglers. But data shows that most sea arrivals through the central Mediterranean do not happen through charity rescues.
Italy allowed the Ocean Viking last week to disembark at tiny Lampedusa island 82 migrants who were rescued during an earlier mission. But in a scenario that has played out several times before, the Italian government gave the authorization only after Germany, France, Portugal and Luxembourg agreed to take a share of the group.
Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.
Renata Brito, The Associated Press