By NICOLE WINFIELD and GINO MACELI, POZZALLO, Sicily (AP) — About 400 migrants aboard two border patrol ships disembarked in a Sicilian port Monday after a half-dozen European countries promised to take some of them in rather than leave Italy alone to process their asylum claims.
Italy’s hard-line, anti-migrant government had kept the two military ships from docking at Pozzallo for two days until other countries stepped up in the latest standoff forced by Italy over migrant rescues.
Early Monday, the ships came into port and disembarked their passengers, who were seen being screened at dawn. The women and children had already come ashore.
Doctors at the scene said one of the men was hospitalized in critical condition with pneumonia, while the others were in generally good health but suffering from scabies. They reported that four Somalis had died early on in their voyage when they jumped into the sea.
On Sunday, Germany, Spain and Portugal each agreed to respectively accept 50 of the migrants, following similar offers by France and Malta. They were responding to a request by the Italian premier, who sent individual letters to each EU member asking for a firm gesture of solidarity so that Italy isn’t left alone to cope.
But not everyone agreed. The Czech Republic rebuffed the appeal and called the distribution plan a “road to hell” that would just encourage more human traffickers.
Italy has for years complained that it has been left alone to cope with the estimated 640,000 migrants who have arrived on its shores since 2014, most of them smuggled aboard boats and rubber dinghies from lawless Libya.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has spearheaded Italy’s tough line on migration, said the redistribution deal was just a temporary solution and that the ultimate goal is for Libya to be considered a safe enough haven for migrants to be returned. Italy is also pushing for the EU to fund “hotspots” in migrants’ home countries where asylum bids can be processed.
Salvini said the EU has a “bipolar” relationship with Libya, providing training and boats to beef up its coast guard, but then refusing to consider it a safe port where migrants can be brought back.
“What is prohibited today can be normalized tomorrow,” he said of Libya’s status as a safe haven. “The European Union should convince itself that this is the only way to get out of this problem.”
International law requires those rescued at sea to be brought to a safe port; humanitarian groups say Libya hardly constitutes that, given widespread torture and abuse reported by migrants in Libyan detention centers.
Asked about the issue Monday, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud repeated that no European ship participating in a rescue mission can return migrants to Libya “because we don’t consider it a secure country.”
The European Commission welcomed the fact that the two rescue ships had disembarked their passengers in Pozzallo and that six EU countries had stepped forward, but said such “ad hoc solutions cannot be sustainable in the long term,” a spokesman said.
Aid workers at the docks in Pozzallo said the migrants were traumatized and needed care. They expressed alarm that families had likely been separated when the women and children were allowed off the ships, but not the men.
“The reality is that many among these women are very young girls and the children are very young and need their relatives,” U.N. refugee agency spokesman Marco Rotunno said.
“It is unacceptable that these people are blocked onboard and that are not allowed to disembark and that their final destination is being negotiated while they are blocked,” he added. “Disembarking in a safe port should be granted immediately and a fair relocation should be decided at a later stage.”
The migrants had set off from Libya in a large fishing boat on Wednesday. Italy and Malta both refused to let the ship dock, and eventually the migrants were transferred onto two vessels: one participating in the EU border patrol agency’s Mediterranean search and rescue mission and one from the Italian border agency.
The International Organization for Migration’s Italy spokesman, Flavio Di Giocomo, said Monday that the migrants arriving in Pozzallo reported that four Somalis drowned Friday when they and 30 other migrants jumped into the sea to reach an unidentified rescue ship.
It’s not clear what became of the 30 others.
(A paramedic holds, a child disembarked from an Italian Coast Guard ship in the port of Pozzallo, Southern Italy, Sunday, July 15, 2018. Another day’s worth of food and beverages was sent Sunday to a pair of military ships off Sicily as Italy waited for more European nations to pledge to take a share of the hundreds of migrants on board before allowing the asylum-seekers to step off onto Italian soil. Francesco Ruta-ANSA via AP)