Italy closes ports to NGO migrant ships, hundreds left stranded

Italy allowed a humanitarian rescue ship carrying 179 migrants to enter a Sicilian port and begin disembarking minors early Sunday, while refusing to respond to requests for safe harbor from three other ships carrying 900 more people in nearby waters.

Italy's new far-right-led government has closed its ports to rescue ships run by non-governmental groups and insists that the countries whose flag the ships fly must take in the migrants. It granted the Humanity 1 alone access to port to land minors and people needing medical attention.

Officials at the German-run charity that operates the Humanity 1 challenged Italy's move to distinguish "vulnerable" migrants, saying all were rescued at sea and that alone qualifies them for a safe port under international law.

Migrants rest on board the Ocean Viking ship sailing in the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea on Nov. 2, 2022, after being rescued by European charity organization "SOS Mediterranee." VINCENZO CIRCOSTA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Italy's only Black lawmaker in the lower chamber, Abourbakar Soumahoro, met the Humanity 1 at the port in Catania and decried the government's closure of ports to NGO ships as a "shame."

"Right now, in the port of Catania there is a selective disembarkation under way," Soumahoro said on Twitter. "Worn bodies of castaways already exhausted by cold, fatigue, trauma and torture are considered objects by the government of Giorgia Meloni."

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said Friday that the Humanity 1 would be allowed in Italian waters only long enough to disembark minors and people in need of urgent medical care.

The measure was approved after Germany and France each called on Italy to grant a safe port to the migrants, and indicated they would receive some of the migrants so Italy wouldn't bear the burden alone.

No such provisions have been offered to the other three ships. The Norway-flagged Geo Barents, carrying 572 migrants, and the German-run Rise Above with 93 entered Italian waters east of Sicily this weekend to seek protection from storm-swollen seas, but without receiving consent from Italy or a response to repeated requests for a safe port.