ROME (AP) – Italy’s fierce battle over immigration raged on Monday, with fights and panic attacks reported among migrants who have been stranded on a rescue ship for up to 18 days at sea.
While Italy’s interior minister stuck to his refusal to let the Open Arms rescue ship dock on the Italian island of Lampedusa, just a few hundred meters (yards) away from where it was anchored, the charity countered by suggesting that a plane be chartered to fly the 107 migrants left on the boat to Spain.
For nearly a week, Lampedusa has been frustratingly in sight of the migrants who have been crowded together, sleeping and eating under the canopied deck of the Open Arms after being plucked to safety in early August from smugglers’ foundering dinghies off Libya.
On Sunday, at least four of the migrants jumped into the crystalline waters in a bid to reach shore, but the crew dove in right after them and brought them back to the boat.
To end the stalemate, and “give dignity to the shipwrecked, they could transfer them to Catania (Sicily), and from there, in a plane, to Madrid,” Open Arms official Riccardo Gatti told reporters at the dock.
Open Arms is steadfast in refusing Spain’s offer of a port, saying even a few days of sailing would be beyond the crew’s and migrants’ limits.
The captain of the Open Arms, Marc Reig Creus, on Sunday cited what he called the “unmanageable” conditions aboard as he formally renewed the boat’s appeal to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s office, the coast guard, prosecutors in Sicily and other Italian authorities to allow the ship to dock at Lampedusa.
Failing that, the captain said, Open Arms was requesting that the migrants be transferred to another boat that could make the several days’ journey to the port Spain had initially proposed, Algeciras, at the far west end of the Mediterranean.
Citing the assessment of a psychologist, the captain added “because of the climate of tension and nervousness aboard, they are prey to frequent anxiety and panic attacks, even triggering episodes of fights.”
Open Arms has only two toilets, and last week volunteers who visited the ship said some migrants were forced to use areas where they eat for their bathroom needs.
But Spain on Monday insisted that its offer of a port could resolve the drama. Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said the government had offered to help the Open Arms with food, fuel and medical attention for the journey to Spain.
“We believe that once the migrants have peace of mind and know that they will navigate to a safe and open port, like the one Spain is offering, this situation will calm down,” she said. “But the answer was that they (Open Arms) insist on entering Italy.”
Open Arms has nixed Spain’s offer of ports, citing the precarious psychological state of the migrants and the small ship’s limitations. It said Madrid’s latest offer, of a port in Spain’s Balearic Islands, was still unfeasible, although it would be several hundred nautical miles closer that Spain’s original offer of Algeciras.
Spain and five other European Union countries last week offered to take the migrants but until they disembark that distribution plan cannot begin.
Open Arms’ Gatti argued that flying the migrants to Spain made economic sense.
“To rent a Boeing for 200 persons costs 240 euros ($265) a passenger,” Gatti was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA. He said sending the migrants to Spain aboard an Italian coast guard ship would cost far more.
Salvini, who’s trying to use an Italian government crisis that he provoked to gain the premiership, was scathing in his rejection of letting the Open Arms migrants disembark in Italy. Salvini’s anti-migrant tactics have given him soaring popularity among his voter base, which blames illegal migrants for crime.
“Why doesn’t Open Arms go to Spain?” he tweeted. “In 18 days, they could have gone back and forth three times from Ibiza and Formentera,” two Balearic islands.
In Brussels, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said the EU’s executive arm remains ready to “to start to coordinate a process of relocating the people aboard this ship as soon as disembarkation has taken place.”
She added “unfortunately, the commission has no power to designate a place for disembarkation.”
Last week, 40 migrants and some family members were allowed to leave Open Arms because they were deemed to be minors, ailing or psychologically troubled.
Another potential migrant standoff loomed. The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, with 356 rescued migrants for as many as 10 days, and operated by two French humanitarian groups, has been sailing for days in the waters between the Italian island of Linosa, near Lampedusa, and Malta, which has also cracked down on charity boats.
Doctors Without Borders, one of the groups, said Malta refused to find a safe port while Italy hasn’t answered the ship’s request, so Ocean Viking is appealing to other European countries to swiftly find a solution.
Meanwhile, in recent days, Italian customs or coast guard boats have brought dozens migrants they rescued to Lampedusa, which has also seen several migrants arrive unaided aboard small boats.
Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Lorne Cook and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.