Hardline Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is refusing to give permission to an Italian Coast Guard ship to disembark 177 people it rescued off the island of Lampedusa last week.
Migrants aboard the Ubaldo Diciotti, which docked in Catania, Sicily, after being forced to remain at sea for five days, will not be allowed off the ship until Italy receives assurances they will be relocated elsewhere in Europe, Salvini said.
The Coast Guard ship picked up 190 migrants on August 15 from an overcrowded boat 17 miles off Lampedusa after they were refused entry to Malta.
Transport Minister Danio Toninelli tweeted on Saturday, “Diciotti shows that Italy never pulls back when it comes to saving human lives. Malta’s behavior is once again unspeakable/deplorable and deserving of sanctions.”
Thirteen of them were taken to Lampedusa because of serious medical conditions, Coast Guard Lt. Floriana Segreto told CNN, but the remaining 177 were left in international waters. The majority of migrants are from Eritrea, with some people from Bangladesh, Syria and Egypt, the Coast Guard said.
On Monday afternoon, Toninelli announced on Twitter: “The Diciotti ship will dock in Catania.”
“The valiant men of the coast guard have fulfilled their duty by saving human lives just 17 miles off Lampedusa,” he said on Twitter. “Now Europe needs to play its part fast.”
But Salvini’s press officer said in a statement that the interior minister “has not given and will not give the authorization for the migrants to disembark until he is assured that the 177 migrants will go elsewhere.”
The European Commission confirmed it has been contacted by Italian authorities regarding the ship but stated it cannot solve the standoff because “it’s a matter for national authorities.”
“We don’t have competence to coordinate search-and-rescue operations or to indicate places for disembarkation,” a press briefing said. The commission added that it started contacting member states about the matter.
The Diciotti docked in Catania seaport at around 11:30 p.m. on August 20 but passengers on board “won’t be allowed to disembark until the interior minister gives the green light,” the Coast Guard’s Claudio Pulvirenti told CNN.
Salvini earlier said on Italian TV: “The ship [Diciotti] may dock in Italy as long as the 177 people on board are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU, among the 27 countries.”
Meanwhile, charities and nongovernmental organizations working with refugees and migrants expressed concerns about their situation.
Carlotta Sami, South Europe spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency, said on Twitter:
“People on board have been abused, tortured, trafficked. They urgently need to receive assistance and the right to seek asylum. A fundamental right, not a crime.”
Save the Children spokeswoman Giovanna Di Benedetto said: “We are in the face of yet another standoff where it is always the weakest who pay the price, including minors.”
“On board this ship that is behind me are minors, women, people who have been in the detention centers in Libya for a long time, a year, a year and a half, two years, and they have really, really gone through a a lot,” she said. “They are at the extremity of their strength. To stop these people from disembarking in a safe port where they could finally receive assistance … they need is just not admissible. We ask the government to find a solution which puts in the forefront protection for these people and respect for their rights.”
This is not the first time a migrant shift has been stuck in limbo between Maltese and Italian waters. Early in August, a migrant ship, Aquarius, carrying 114 migrants, was eventually allowed to dock in Malta after being stuck in limbo for several days.
CNN’s Katie Polglase and Livia Borghese contributed to this report.