Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 September 2020

Tensions rising as migrants await transfer near Sicily, rescuers warn

Plight of 180 Mediterranean migrants goes on as Ocean Viking rescue ship forced to wait at anchor off southern Italy

Eleven days after making its first Mediterranean rescues since the coronavirus crisis erupted, the humanitarian aid ship Ocean Viking dropped anchor off the Italian island of Sicily on Monday, poised to disembark the 180 migrants on board.

At Port Empedocle on Sicily's south coast, the migrants are expected to be transferred from the vessel chartered by charity group SOS Mediterranee to an Italian ferry where they will spend 14 days in quarantine.

But SOS Mediterranee said it was still waiting for instructions from the Italian maritime authorities despite sitting at anchor only four kilometres from the coast.

"For the moment, we haven't received information on when and how the disembarkment will take place," the group wrote on Twitter.

It said tensions were rising and the long wait was "amplifying risks on board".

The 180 migrants were rescued in poor physical and mental health while crossing the Mediterranean.

The group includes 25 children and two women, one of whom is pregnant.

In the past week the Ocean Viking crew said there had been seven attempted suicides.

The migrants have been stuck in cramped conditions on board the rescue ship as its operators tried and repeatedly failed for more than one week to be granted permission to land.

From the deck of the Ocean Viking both the Sicilian coast and the immense ferry, the Moby Zaza, are clearly visible.

It was not known whether the migrants would be transferred directly to the Moby Zaza or step on to Italian soil before being transferred.

The pending transfer came one day after Italy gave approval to unload the migrants, who were picked up in four separate rescues in the Mediterranean Sea on June 25 and 30.

The news immediately prompted joy and relief from the migrants, who include Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Eritreans and Nigerians and people from several North African countries.

Rabiul, 27, from Bangladesh said: "We're very happy. We've come a long way, Libya was like hell and now at least we can see the end. I need to tell my family that I'm still alive."

Emmanuel, 32, from Ghana, said: "Now, a second life is in front of us, after everything we went through in Libya.

"Thank you Italy for offering us a second life, and to SOS Mediterranee for saving the first."

The Ocean Viking set sail from Marseille on June 22 and has been operating in the eastern Mediterranean between Libya and Italy.

"Many of the survivors on board are in a state of acute mental distress, having experienced violence and abuse in Libya, oftentimes in arbitrary detention for extended periods of time, having just endured a near-death experience at sea and now being faced with the uncertainty about when and where they will be able disembark,” a spokeswoman told The National on Friday.

Updated: July 6, 2020 08:29 PM

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