People on rescue ship off Italy at breaking point, say doctors

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
Photograph: Salvatore Cavalli/AP

The medical and psychological condition of people onboard a rescue boat anchored off the Italian island of Lampedusa for 18 days has reached breaking point, doctors have said.

The vessel operated by the Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms has been refused permission to dock by Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini. On Monday Open Arms suggested chartering a plane to fly the 107 migrants onboard to Spain.

Related: Italy's Matteo Salvini allows migrant children to leave rescue ship

A group of doctors who visited the vessel last week said sanitary and hygienic conditions were very poor and the boat was not fit to hold such a large number of people.

“The migrants are living piled on top of each other; there is no possibility of walking,” doctors from the Italian Order of Malta rescue unit said in a report.

On Sunday a few migrants who jumped off the boat in a desperate attempt to swim to Lampedusa were rescued from the sea by Open Arms volunteers.

Spain and five other EU countries last week offered to take the migrants, but until they disembark the distribution plan could not be set in motion.

“European states are asking a small NGO like ours to deal with three days of navigation, in adverse weather conditions, with 107 exhausted people onboard,’, said Riccardo Gatti, the president of Open Arms. “This is completely incomprehensible.”

Spain’s latest offer of a port in the Balearic Islands, 600 miles west of Lampedusa, was still unfeasible, the charity said.

Carmelo La Magra, a priest in Lampedusa who has been working with migrants, said every extra day spent on the ship “is like an extension of a torture”. “These are political games, maybe a show of power but what is worse is that this is done on the backs of these poor and vulnerable people,” he said.

Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Italy, said: “The prolonged search for a solution underlines the necessity that countries in the region come together and agree on mechanism to disembark the rescued in a timely manner. Saving lives shouldn’t be treated as a political matter.”

The migrants were taken to safety in early August from traffickers’ foundering dinghies off Libya. Salvini reiterated his refusal to let them disembark on Monday, describing the medical report as “fake news” and the “latest stitch-up from the NGOs”. .

Authorising disembarkation now would be perceived as a political defeat for Salvini, who wants snap elections in Italy to take advantage of his strong polling numbers.

“The refusal to allow the Open Arms to land certainly has a symbolic and a strategic value,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “Salvini’s refusal to allow disembarkation is also a way to reaffirm the political identity of [his party] the League.”