Italy’s hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini authorized Saturday the disembarkation of minors from the Open Arms, a migrant rescue ship caught up in a political dispute.
The Open Arms vessel, run by the Open Arms charity, has been at sea for 17 days and is currently positioned just off Italy’s Lampedusa island, with 134 migrants on board.
In a public letter to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Salvini said he would let minors off the vessel, but ‘against [his] will’ and only because he was asked to do so by the premier.
The disembarkation order concerns 27 unaccompanied minors, Open Arms tweeted, indicating that the remaining 107 migrants, including two minors who are not travelling alone, would remain aboard.
Earlier Saturday, Open Arms founder Oscar Camps said in a Twitter video that conditions on the vessel were ‘unsustainable,’ with ‘constant fights and arguments’ among passengers.
Spanish public TV RTVE, who has a reporter on board, said several migrants threatened to jump into the sea or commit suicide, and quoted captain Marc Reig as warning of an explosive situation.
The Open Arms is the latest charity vessel to be blocked at sea by Salvini, a far-right politician who accuses non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of abetting illegal migration.
He issued a ban on the Open Arms entering Italian territorial waters, but this was struck down by a court on Wednesday. Salvini’s ministry is appealing the decision.
According to Open Arms, prolonging the migrants’ stay on the ship amounts to the crime of kidnapping. Prosecutors in Agrigento are investigating the claim, the ANSA news agency said.
On Twitter, Salvini charged that Open Arms was fighting ‘a political battle, certainly not a humanitarian one,’ to flood Italy with migrants.
He also disputed that the 13 migrants evacuated from the ship over the past 48 hours were critically ill, accusing Open Arms of taking Italian authorities for a ride over the issue.
Salvini made the charge after the head of Lampedusa’s infirmary, Francesco Cascio, said doctors diagnosed only a single case of ear infection among the 13 migrants.
However, doctors from the Knights of Malta, a Catholic charity that previously boarded the Open Arms, found 20 migrants with scabies and several with bladder infections.
At the end of last week as many as 160 migrants were aboard the Open Arms, but there were other medical evacuations to Italy and Malta that reduced the number.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who is at loggerheads with Salvini amid a looming government crisis, has been calling for the evacuation of minors since Thursday.
He also said that six EU countries – France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania and Spain – have agreed to take in some of the Open Arms migrants if they are disembarked.
Meanwhile, there is another charity rescue vessel stranded at sea.
The Ocean Viking, operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, is awaiting permission to enter a port with 356 migrants on board.