Three charity-run ships in the Mediterranean are awaiting permission to disembark in Italy or Malta as those on board need urgent help amid dwindling supplies and worsening weather conditions.
Ships operated by Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), SOS Mediterranee and SOS Humanity have been at sea for more than a week, carrying a total of nearly 1,000 people.
Italy’s new right-wing government confirmed it had received their requests to disembark, but stopped short of letting them enter the port.
“The last request was made last night but we have not received any response,” Riccardo Gatti, head of MSF’s Geo Barents team, told Al Jazeera in a video message.
Similar requests forwarded to the Maltese government have not been approved.
Gatti said on Saturday that the Geo Barents had entered Italian waters to seek shelter from an approaching storm with 572 people on board, including an 11-month-old and three pregnant women.
MSF media advisor Candida Lobes said water has been rationed and food supplies are also dwindling. Respiratory and skin infections also spread due to overcrowding.
“The situation is simply unacceptable,” Lobes said.
The European maritime humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee called on the authorities to comply with international obligations and provide for a predictable disembarkation system.
“Survivors rescued from a disaster at sea can no longer be traded for political debate,” the organization said in a statement on Thursday.
Elisa Brivio, spokeswoman for SOS Mediterranee, told Al Jazeera that there were 234 people on board the Ocean Viking, including 40 unaccompanied minors.
“Not everyone can sleep below deck, we prefer women and children,” said Brivio. “Others are sleeping outside and yesterday we set up shelter tents to protect them from the winds and the storm.
Among those rescued, many show signs of torture and ill-treatment.
SOS Humanity’s head of operations, Till Rummenhohl, said the 179 people on board Humanity 1 “were fleeing prison camps in Libya where they had suffered severe violence”.
If no country offers a safe haven, they could be pushed back into international waters.
“[This] would be a clear violation of international law and the Geneva Convention,” Rummenhohl told Al Jazeera. “It is their human right to seek asylum and seek safety.”
Italy’s far-right government
Last month, Italy formed its first far-right-led government since the end of World War II, with Giorgia Meloni becoming the first woman prime minister.
Rome insisted that the flag countries of these NGO ships should 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 patrol boats, including one carrying 456 people that arrived in Calabria on Thursday, were allowed to disembark.
Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, told local media that the government intends to give flag-holding countries an “immediate signal”.
“We cannot bear the burden of migrants picked up at sea by foreign ships operating systematically without any coordination with local authorities,” he said.
Piantedosi drew up new measures, arguing that non-governmental groups had breached the order by not properly coordinating their rescue efforts, which laid the groundwork for Italy to close the ports.
The charities have denied bypassing procedures and say it is their duty to rescue people in distress at sea.
The German embassy this week called on Italy to provide urgent aid, saying the NGO’s ships had made a significant contribution to saving lives at sea.
Norway has stated that it has no responsibility under human rights conventions or the law of the sea for people taken on private Norwegian-flagged vessels.
Coastal states such as Italy and Malta must accept people from rescue boats “as soon as possible” and governments should work together to ensure a safe haven for survivors, the United Nations refugee agency said.
“Frankly, it is absurd that the Italian and Maltese governments have not yet offered them a safe haven,” Amnesty International asylum and migration researcher Matteo De Bellis told Al Jazeera.
“This incident shows a step backwards by the Italian authorities, especially since the new government is reviving the policies we saw implemented already in 2018 and 2019,” added De Bellis, referring to the “closed ports” policy implemented by the then interior minister. far-right leader Matteo Salvini.
“This policy was and continues to be a violation of international law,” he said.
“It is clear that European states must share the responsibility of helping people in need, but it is equally clear that Italy and Malta must work together in good faith to ensure that people rescued at sea are given a safe haven.”