EU Parliament President intervenes in Italian ‘Open Arms’ migrant standoff

David Sassoli has urged the Italian government to let the Open Arms rescue ship carrying migrants to disembark at Lampedusa.
credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

20 Aug 2019

The rescue ship has been anchored for days off Lampedusa, watched by an Italian patrol boat stationed nearby.

There is mounting concern, though, about conditions on board and the rapidly deteriorating health of the migrants.

Sassoli, an Italian Socialist MEP, has now intervened, saying in a statement that his office had been in contact with the captain of the Open Arms vessel who described conditions on board as “scarcely tolerable.”


Sassoli said, “The situation has become dramatic. The immigrants have been blocked on the vessel for days.”

He added: “They are now giving up and are inflicting acts of self-harm, while they lose their sense of reality. The hygiene conditions on board are worse than ever and it is necessary to allow an immediate disembarkation of those on board. I hope that the Italian authorities understand the gravity of the humanitarian emergency on board the vessel and agree to let them enter the port.”

The Open Arms ship, run by a Spanish charity of the same name, has been stranded at sea for 18 days and Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said late on Monday that Italy was ready to take all the migrants to a Spanish port.

But the charity says that those on board are distressed and in no condition to sail to Spain in such cramped conditions.

Italy bans private rescue ships from bringing migrants ashore, saying it has borne too much responsibility for handling African migration to Europe. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini says the ships have become “taxis” for people smugglers.

Salvini allowed 27 minors to leave the boat on Saturday, saying he was only doing so on the Prime Minister’s instructions.

"I hope that the Italian authorities understand the gravity of the humanitarian emergency on board the vessel and agree to let them enter the port” European Parliament President David Sassoli

Late on Monday eight migrants that needed urgent assistance and another one accompanying them were evacuated to Lampedusa.

The Open Arms charity says it has not ruled out the option of defying Italy’s ban and attempting to dock at Lampedusa.

On Monday, Open Arms’ director and founder, Oscar Camps, said that the Italian Coast Guard had offered to provide an escort and to carry some of the migrants to end the standoff, which he says is at a crisis point. Migrants sleep jammed together on the deck, with two toilets for about 100 people. Some are suicidal and close to mental breakdown, according to Open Arms.

The standoff has fuelled Salvini’s campaign against migrant boats from Africa at a time when there is speculation in Italy about snap elections.

On Tuesday, the European Commission said it was trying to “facilitate a solution which would allow the people on board the boat to disembark”.

Meanwhile, several members of the Brussels-based Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR) have expressed their willingness to provide a “safe” port for the Open Arms boat. These include the regional governments of Catalonia, Valencia and the Basque Country.

The CPMR have also expressed the need to find a solution for similar cases in the future and the subsequent “fair distribution and integration of migrants”, with a spokesperson telling this website that its member regions were often those most directly impacted by such events.

The spokesperson added, “Our regions strongly believes that voluntary support can provide the quick humanitarian assistance needed in urgent situations like that of the Open Arms. Nevertheless, the various institutions need to work harder on long term solutions.

“Although most of migration and asylum competences lie with central governments, regions can play a key role, and have competences and expertise to do so. Voluntary support agreed with Member States in the framework of such competences can provide a vital solution to those in need.”

“The CPMR, within its Task Force on Migration, has carried out relevant analysis based on member surveys, including a visual mapping showcasing the competences, needs and innovative experiences of the regions.

The CPMR Task Force has been addressing the response to humanitarian emergencies dealing with irregular immigration Since 2015. “The CPMR eagerly wishes that a solution to provide humanitarian assistance is reached within the shortest delays.” added the spokesperson.

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