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Italy lets ‘vulnerable’ refugees off rescue ship, despises others

Italy has allowed a rescue ship carrying 179 refugees and migrants to enter a port in Sicily and begin disembarking children and sick or “vulnerable” people, according to rescuers and an Italian lawmaker.

But Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government on Sunday continued to refuse to respond to safe harbor requests from three other ships carrying nearly 900 people that were stranded in nearby waters amid bad weather.

Humanity 1, run by the German charity SOS Humanity, said Italian authorities told it to go to Catania port to disembark minors and people in need of medical attention, but questioned the government’s decision to distinguish between refugees and migrants. “vulnerable,” saying all of the people on board were rescued at sea and that alone qualified them for a safe harbor under international law.

Italy’s only black legislator in the lower house, Aboubakar Soumahoro, met with Humanity 1 in the port of Catania and denounced the government’s closure of ports to non-governmental organization (NGO) ships as a “shame”.

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“Right now, a selective landing is taking place in the port of Catania,” Soumahoro said on Twitter. “Worn bodies of castaways already exhausted by cold, fatigue, trauma and torture are considered objects by the government of Giorgia Meloni.”

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said on Friday that the Humanity 1 would only be allowed in Italian waters long enough to disembark minors and people in need of urgent medical care. The move was passed after Germany and France called on Italy to provide a safe harbor for refugees and migrants, saying they would take in some of the asylum seekers so Italy would not bear the burden alone.

No such provisions have been offered to the other three ships. The Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents, carrying 572 refugees and migrants, and the German-run Rise Above, carrying 93, entered Italian waters east of Sicily this weekend to seek protection from storm-tossed seas, but without receiving Italy’s consent or a response to repeated requests for a safe harbor.

The Ocean Viking, operated by the European charity SOS Mediterranee, with 234 refugees and migrants on board, remained in international waters south of the Strait of Messina. Their requests for a port also went unanswered.

“We have been waiting for 10 days for a safe place to disembark the 572 survivors,” said Juan Mattias Gil, chief of mission of the Geo Barents, operated by Doctors Without Borders. Media consultant Candida Lobes told Al Jazeera that water was being rationed and food supplies were also dwindling. Due to overcrowding, respiratory and skin infections were also spreading, she said.

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“The situation is simply unacceptable,” Lobes said.

SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity 1, said it had made 19 requests for safe harbor, all without response. The ship was carrying 100 unaccompanied minors, as well as babies as young as seven months, said Till Rummenhohl, the group’s chief operating officer.

The children “are struggling a lot with their mental health,” Rummenhohl told Al Jazeera from the rescue ship. “They saw people drowning in front of them, family and friends.”

Speaking ahead of the Italian government’s decision to allow the ship into port, he said: “The nights are getting cold, the rain is hitting us, the winds are hitting us and people are sleeping on deck… We can provide these people with food, blankets, clothes. , water and basic medical support. But we have been doing this for two weeks now and it is clear that we cannot provide them with the security they would need to be rescued at sea.”

He added: “Our supplies will last until early next week. So, we will run out of food.”

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Italy’s new government insists that countries whose flag is flown by boats run by charities must accept refugees and migrants. Speaking at a news conference on Friday night, Piantedosi described those ships as “islands” that are under the jurisdiction of the flag countries.

Most of the refugees and migrants have traveled through Libya, setting out on unseaworthy boats in search of a better life in Europe, often facing abuse from human traffickers along the way.

While humanitarian ships are denied a safe port, thousands of refugees and migrants have washed up on Italian shores over the past week, either alone on fishing boats or rescued at sea by Italian authorities. On Saturday, 147 arrived in Augusta, including 59 on the Zagara oil tanker, which was also carrying two bodies.

The situation at Rise Above, operated by the German NGO Mission Lifeline, was said to be particularly desperate, with 93 people crammed aboard a relatively small 25m (82ft) boat.

Spokeswoman Hermine Poschmann described a “very critical situation that… generated very great tensions” on board because passengers saw land and did not understand why they were not docking.

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The ship’s chief of mission, Clemens Ledwa, demanded a safe harbor immediately, citing bad weather and the small ship’s limited capacity.

“This is not a wish. This is everyone’s right,” he said Friday night.

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