Stranded Italy migrant rescue ship sounds health alarm

Italy's Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (L).
Italy's Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (L).
Image: REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

A charity rescue vessel banned from entering Italian waters warned Friday of an impending health emergency on board, appealing for water to reduce the risk of disease.

The appeal for assistance came during a period of political limbo in Italy, as the premier designate rushed to form a new left-leaning coalition which could alter outgoing interior minister Matteo Salvini's hardline stance on immigrants.

Charity Mediterranea Saving Humans said it had sent a "new urgent request" for a safe port for its Mare Jonio ship, "due to the risk of a health and sanitary emergency".

Sixty-four vulnerable people including women and children were disembarked on Thursday, leaving 34 migrants on board.

Particularly worrying was a "lack of water for hygienic and other on board needs", the charity said in a statement.

"We stress that this emergency obviously cannot be solved by simply sending bottles of water.

"The presence on board of waste from the rescue and the period those saved spent on board the dinghy - such as clothes soaked in petrol and faeces - is also a cause of alarm.

"The risk of disease is exacerbated by the lack of water, with possible health consequences for the rescued and the crew".

Marco Mensurati, a reporter with the Repubblica daily aboard the Mare Jonio, said the transfer of women and children had been carried out on the high seas in rough weather after Italy refused to allow the ship to enter its waters.

'We are needed'

The captain had asked permission to seek shelter from the weather by docking on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

But Salvini's ban on the vessel meant that "pregnant women and children were forced to jump from the tug towards the patrol boat, in the dark, with waves two-metres high and without life-jackets", he said.

Salvini stays on as interior minister until the new coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Democratic Party (PD) is sworn in - likely at the end of next week.

His refusal to allow any charity vessels to approach the Italian coast without a deal in place with other European countries to take in those rescued has won him support among voters.

Critics who fear his hardline stance cruelly prolongs the suffering of those fleeing war and poverty now hope that the formation of a new coalition will see changes to the law against rescue charities.

Meanwhile, a sailboat with 62 Pakistani migrants on board, including nine minors, arrived at Gallipoli, on Italy's heel, overnight Thursday.

Alleged people smugglers aboard the vessel have been arrested, Italian media reported.

On Thursday another charity vessel, Spain's Open Arms, was released by Italian prosecutors who had ordered it preventatively seized after bringing rescued migrants to Lampedusa.

"Good news, we want to return to sea as soon as possible. We are needed," Open Arms said in a statement.

It said it hoped that "this dark period of history be overcome" and that "European states will begin once more to protect the lives of women, men and children and respect the constitutions that are the basis of our democracies".

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