By Angelo Amante
CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) – Doctors ordered on Saturday that 16 sick migrants be allowed to leave the Italian rescue ship docked for five days in a Sicilian port as Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said he was working on a “positive solution” for the remaining 134 people on board.
The migrants, mainly from Eritrea, have been stranded in the port of Catania since Monday because the Italian government is refusing to let them off the boat until other European Union states agree to take some of them in.
The United Nations called on Saturday for reason from all sides after a meeting of envoys from 10 EU states in Brussels a day earlier failed to break the deadlock.
“Frightened people who may be in need of international protection should not be caught in the maelstrom of politics, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement.
It appealed to EU member states to “urgently” offer relocation places to the rescued people, in line with an agreement at an EU summit in June, and in the meantime urged Italy to allow “the immediate disembarkation of those on board.”
But the anti-establishment government that took office three months ago shows no sign of backing down, despite fierce criticism from rights groups and the opposition.
More than 650,000 people have reached Italian shores since 2014 and Rome says it will not let any more rescue ships dock unless the migrants are shared out around the EU.
“I am totally untroubled and I am working, with good prospects of success, on a positive solution,” said Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, adding that he considered the criticism he received to be a “badge of honour.”
Inspectors from the Italian Health Ministry and the Red Cross went on board the coastguard vessel Diciotti to visit the migrants, some of whom have been refusing food in protest at being detained on board for days under the hot sun.
Following the check up, they ordered that 11 women and five men be allowed off the boat and taken to Catania’s Garibaldi hospital. They have not yet disembarked but Salvini’s Interior Ministry said they would do so shortly. No information was immediately given on their health problems.
Stefano Principato, a Red Cross representative, said the health of most of the migrants “isn’t particularly critical,” adding their problems “are more psychological than physical.”
Earlier this week Italy let 27 unaccompanied minors leave the vessel. Prior to that, 13 people needing urgent hospital attention were evacuated from the ship, which picked up the migrants in the Mediterranean 10 days ago.
The mostly young men now on board shelter from the sun under a large green tarpaulin that covers around half the deck, with clothes attached to it hanging out to dry. Some occasionally wave to reporters gathered at the port.
The 5-Star Movement, the League’s coalition partner, has so far backed Salvini’s hard line, and on Tuesday its Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who is responsible for the country’s ports, renewed the government’s attacks on the EU.
“Nobody can give lessons to Italy on its humanitarian efforts,” he tweeted. “The government is only asking the EU give some sense to its own existence.”
(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Helen Popper)