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Ending a lengthy standoff, Italy allowed 116 rescued migrants on its Gregoretti coastguard ship to disembark on Wednesday after several EU countries agreed to share responsibility for looking after them.
Matteo Salvini, the country’s hardline interior minister, announced he had given his green light earlier in the day after forcing the migrants to remain on the boat docked in Sicily for five days.
Italian prosecutors had opened an investigation into the conditions on the coastguard supply vessel where the migrants had only one toilet between them, Italian media reported.
An EU Commission spokeswoman told AFP earlier Wednesday that France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal would join the Italian Roman Catholic church in caring for the migrants.
The Commission did not give a breakdown on how the migrants would be shared out between the host countries but the official said most would stay in Italy.
The stand-off was immediately set to repeat itself, with Salvini on Wednesday formally banning the Alan Kurdi – a rescue ship run by German charity Sea-Eye – from entering Italian waters after plucking 40 migrants from waters off Libya.
Salvini has taken a hard line against migrants rescued at sea being brought to Italy, which he says bears an unfair burden.
Some 140 migrants, who had set off from Libya, were picked up by Italian patrols and transferred to the coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti last Thursday.
The operation took place on the same day that at least 115 other migrants were feared drowned in a shipwreck off Libya – the deadliest tragedy in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Several migrants aboard the Gregoretti had already been evacuated for medical attention, including a seven-month pregnant woman, her two children and her partner as well as 15 minors.
But Salvini had insisted that the remaining migrants would not be able to leave the vessel until other European countries agreed to take them in.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last week that 14 EU members had approved a plan to redistribute refugees rescued in the Mediterranean and eight said they would actively take part.
“A European solution has been found for the women and men stranded on the ship Gregoretti,” Macron tweeted on Wednesday.
Une solution européenne a été trouvée pour les femmes et les hommes bloqués sur le navire Gregoretti. Ils vont débarquer en Italie, puis seront accueillis dans 6 pays, dont la France. Notre pays est fidèle à ses principes : responsabilité, solidarité et coopération européenne.
Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) July 31, 2019
“They will disembark in Italy, then be welcomed in six countries, including France. Our country is true to its principles: responsibility, solidarity and European cooperation,” he added.
However, the proposal drew Salvini’s ire because it still involved allowing migrants to disembark on Italian territory.
Pope Francis on Sunday called on the international community to “act swiftly” to help avoid further deaths.
“I am renewing my call that the international community act swiftly and decisively to avoid that such tragedies repeat themselves and guarantee the safety and dignity of all,” he said Sunday during his weekly Angelus address on St Peter’s Square.
Former Italian navy chief Giuseppe De Giorgi, who launched the Mare Nostrum maritime rescue plan in 2013, hailed the Gregoretti’s crew who “despite all were committed to accomplishing with honour their duty as sailors to protect lives at sea”.
In August 2018, more than 150 people were stranded on the Italian coastguard ship Diciotti for over a week before an agreement between the church, Albania and Ireland allowed them to disembark.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)