Charity suggests using plane to resolve migrant boat standoff

By Frances D'Emilio, Associated Press

Italy’s fierce battle over immigration has continued to rage, 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 at the Italian island of Lampedusa, just a few hundred yards away from where it was anchored, the charity countered by suggesting 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 water in a bid to reach shore, but the crew dove in after them and brought them back to the boat.

Migrants are evacuated by Italian coastguards (Francisco Gentico/AP)

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 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 “unmanageable” conditions aboard as he formally renewed the boat’s appeal to Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini’s office, the coastguard, prosecutors in Sicily and other Italian authorities to allow the ship to dock.

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.”

Matteo Salvini (Alberto Pellaschiar/AP)

Spain on Monday insisted that its offer of a port could resolve the drama. 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 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.

Mr Gatti argued that flying the migrants to Spain made economic sense.

“To rent a Boeing for 200 persons costs 240 euros (£220) a passenger,” he was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency Ansa. He said sending the migrants to Spain aboard an Italian coastguard ship would cost far more.

Mr Salvini, who is 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.

His 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.”