NGO asks France, Spain, Greece for help in migrant stand-off

Migrant rescue group SOS Mediterranee said Thursday it had called on the governments of France, Greece and Spain to help find a port for 234 people rescued while trying to reach Europe, after Italy and Malta failed to respond.

The NGO, whose Ocean Viking vessel responds to migrants in distress in the Mediterranean, said it was the first time it had pleaded for direct help from the three countries.

"We're not asking France to open a port, but to help us find a solution," SOS Med director Sophie Beau told AFP, saying the ship was currently south of Sicily.

Since embarking on its latest mission on October 22, the group asked Malta and Libya, the country from which most migrants hoping to reach Europe from Africa depart, to allow them into port, since they were the nearest countries to the rescue sites.

Beau said neither had responded even as weather conditions worsen, with high winds, strong waves and lower temperatures forecast for coming days.

The ship then requested aid from Italy, whose new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vowed to stop migrants from crossing to Europe from Africa.

As of Thursday, it had no official response, but the group said it was facing "a complete blockage in high sea and an implicit ban from entering" Italian ports.

A ship operated by non-governmental organisation SOS Humanity is also stranded with hundreds of migrants onboard, SOS Med said.

- 'Mortal danger' -

"This is the first time we've appealed" to France, Greece and Spain for assistance in finding a port for rescued migrants, Beau said, adding that so far no country had responded.

Germany sent a diplomatic "note" to Italy in which Berlin said the charities were "making an important contribution to saving human lives in the Mediterranean", according to a statement sent to AFP by that embassy in Rome.

"Rescuing people in mortal danger is the priority. We ask the Italian government to help them as soon as possible," it added.

The new Italian government, which campaigned on a promise to "stop arrivals", says the charity vessels sail under the flags of specific countries, which consequently have a duty to take in some of those rescued.

"If you shuttle migrants from the African coast to Italy, you are openly violating maritime law and international law," Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni claimed in a recent interview.

"If then an NGO ship flies -- let's say -- a German flag: either Germany takes responsibility or it becomes a pirate ship," she said.

Since the beginning of this year, 1,765 migrants have died or gone missing attempting to cross the central Mediterranean from Africa on the most perilous migrant route in the world.

According to the Italian interior ministry, 85,991 people have arrived by sea so far this year, but only 112 of them have been taken in by other countries -- namely France and Germany.

The migrants rescued by charity vessels make up just 14 percent of arrivals over the past 12 months, according to Matteo Villa from the Institute for International Political Studies.

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