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Nearly 1,000 migrants stranded aboard NGO boats by storm

Three ships operated by charities in the Mediterranean Sea are awaiting permission to go ashore in Italy or Malta, as those on board are in urgent need of assistance amid tight supplies and worsening weather conditions.

The ships operated by Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), SOS Mediterranee and SOS Humanity, have been at sea for more than a week, carrying almost 1,000 people in total.

Italy’s new right-wing government acknowledged receipt of their landing requests, but stopped short of giving the green light for them to enter the port.

“The last request was made last night, but we received no response,” Riccardo Gatti, MSF team leader aboard the Geo Barents, told Al Jazeera via video message.

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Similar requests sent to the Maltese government have not been acknowledged.

Gatti said on Saturday that the Geo Barents had entered Italian waters to find shelter from a gathering storm, with 572 people on board, including an 11-month-old baby and three pregnant women.

MSF media adviser Candida Lobes said water was being rationed and food supplies were also dwindling. Due to overcrowding, respiratory and skin infections were also spreading.

“The situation is simply unacceptable,” Lobes said.

international obligations

The European maritime humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee has called on the authorities to comply with international obligations and provide a predictable disembarkation system.

“Survivors recovered from distress at sea should no longer be the subject of political debates,” the organization said in a statement on Thursday.

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Elisa Brivio, a press officer for SOS Mediterranee, told Al Jazeera that 234 people were on board her Ocean Viking ship, including 40 unaccompanied minors.

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“Not everyone can sleep below deck, we prioritize women and children,” said Brivio. “The others are sleeping outside and yesterday we put up some protective tents to protect them from the winds and the storm.”

Among those rescued, many show signs of torture and ill-treatment.

Till Rummenhohl, head of operations at SOS Humanity, said the 179 people aboard Humanity 1 were “fleeing detention camps in Libya, where they faced extensive violence.”

If no country offers a security post, they can be pushed back into international waters.

“[This] it would be a clear violation of international law and the Geneva Convention,” Rummenhohl told Al Jazeera. “It is their human right to apply for asylum and seek safety.”

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Italy’s far-right government

Italy last month formed its first far-right-led government since the end of World War II, with Giorgia Meloni becoming the first woman to serve as prime minister.

Rome has insisted that the countries whose flags are flown by these NGO ships must take responsibility for the migrants and refugees on board.

The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking and Geo Barents and the German-flagged Humanity 1 were prevented from docking, while Italian patrols, including one carrying 456 people who arrived in Calabria on Thursday, were allowed to disembark. .

Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, told local media that the government intended to give flag countries an “immediate signal”.

“We cannot bear the burden of migrants picked up at sea by foreign ships that systematically operate without any coordination with local authorities,” he said.

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Piantedosi drafted new measures, alleging that non-governmental groups violated procedure by failing to properly coordinate their rescues, a step that set the stage for Italy to close the ports.

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The charities have denied circumventing the procedures and say it is their duty to rescue people in distress at sea.

The German embassy this week urged Italy to provide swift aid, saying the NGO ships have made an important contribution to saving lives at sea.

Norway said it bears no responsibility under human rights conventions or the law of the sea towards people taken aboard Norwegian-flagged private vessels.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, coastal states such as Italy and Malta are required to accept people from rescue ships “as soon as possible” and governments must cooperate to provide a safe haven for survivors.

“It is frankly absurd that the Italian and Maltese governments have not yet offered them a safe place,” Matteo De Bellis, Amnesty International’s researcher on asylum and migration, told Al Jazeera.

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“This incident signals a step backwards by the Italian authorities in particular, as the new government is resurrecting policies that we have already seen implemented in 2018 and 2019,” De Bellis added, referring to a “closed ports” policy implemented by the then Minister of the Interior and the far-right leader Matteo Salvini.

“These policies violated and continue to violate international law,” he said.

“It is clear that European states must share the responsibility to help people in need, but it is also clear that Italy and Malta must cooperate in good faith to ensure that people rescued at sea have a safe place.”

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