Defying an order from Rome authorities to stay out, migrant rescue ship Sea-watch has decided to enter Italian waters, the vessels' crew said on Twitter on Wednesday (26 June).
The German charity boat had been stranded at sea for two weeks with 42 rescued migrants on board.
"I have decided to enter the port of Lampedusa. I know what I'm risking, but the 42 rescued are exhausted. I'm bringing them to safety now," the ship's captain said.
"The EU has let them down for 14 days. Our captain has no choice," the NGO added.
“No European institution is willing to take responsibility and to uphold human dignity at Europe’s border in the Mediterranean. This is why we have to take the responsibility ourselves. We enter Italian waters as there are no other options left to ensure the safety of our guests whose basic rights have been violated for long enough,” said Johannes Bayer, chairman of Sea-Watch in a written statement seen by Euronews.
“The guarantee of human rights must not be conditional to a passport or to any EU negotiations, they have to be indivisible,” Bayer continued.
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini promptly took to Facebook to react to the announcement.
"We will use every legal means to end this shameful situation. The laws of a state must be respected," Salvini said.
"A Dutch ship from a German NGO that ignores Italian laws? - it's a joke," he continued.
"The Dutch and German governments will answer for it. I'm fed up with it," the far-right politician told his Facebook followers in a live video.
Salvini continued his rant on Twitter: "Europe? Absent as always," he said.
According to a decree approved in June, the Italian Interior Ministry has the power to deny access to territorial waters to vessels that it considers are a risk to security or public order and fine them.
The boat's captain also faces criminal charges.
European Court of Human Rights rules against Sea Watch 3
The Sea Watch 3's move follows a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights against the migrant rescue ship after it appealed for an emergency decree to allow migrants stranded on the vessel to disembark in Italy.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini welcomed the decision, tweeting that Strasbourg had confirmed his country’s ‘choice of order, common sense, legality and justice’.
But the European Court of Human Rights did indicate that Italian authorities must continue to provide all necessary assistance to vulnerable people on board the ship.
“With yesterday’s political ruling (...) the European Court of human rights failed to provide any expedient for the 42 survivors stuck aboard the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3. Their situation is now more desperate than ever,” Sea Watch said in a statement.
The Dutch rescue ship, Sea-Watch 3, is owned by a German charity and has been waiting for somewhere to dock since rescuing 53 people in international waters in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region.
Following an onboard health inspection on 15 June, ten migrants were permitted to disembark in Italy, including three families with underage children and pregnant women. Another individual was allowed to leave on the night of 21 to 22 June on health grounds.
"No exceptionally serious and urgent reasons"
This week, the charity appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to allow the Sea-Watch 3 ship to disembark in Italy as an ‘interim measure’ to "prevent serious and irremediable violations of human rights".
But the court found that these interim measures should “apply only where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm”.
A regional administrative court had previously denied a Sea-Watch 3 request to enter Italian territorial waters.
“Sea-Watch 3 had not indicated that other individuals from vulnerable categories were on the ship. In consequence, [the judge] considered that there were no exceptionally serious and urgent reasons justifying the application of the urgent measures.”
In a statement to Euronews, Sea Watch confirmed that “there are still 42 rescued people on board, including three unaccompanied minors, the youngest [is] 12 years old.” Those on board are believed to be from a number of African countries, including Niger, Guinea, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
Euronews has reached out to Sea Watch for further comment on the latest decision.
Tuesday’s ruling is likely to be criticised by a number of organisations, including some in Lampedusa. Activists and representatives of the Mediterranean Hope Association and the Lampedusa Solidarity Forum have been sleeping outside a parish church in solidarity with those on board Sea-Watch 3, under the motto ‘You are not alone’.
Speaking to Euronews, the parish priest Don Carmelo La Magra said “we support the people rescued and the Sea Watch crew”
“We’ve been doing this for 7 days and we will not stop until they disembark.”
Italy has pushed a hard line against migrant rescue ships since Mr Salvini took office in June 2018. The Italian Interior Minister has previously commented that the Netherlands should be responsible for migrants onboard a rescue ship flying under the Dutch flag.
Since Italy tightened its rules on migration, Malta has spearheaded EU efforts to share migrants rescued at sea in the Mediterranean Sea. On Sunday a group of 37 arrived in the island's capital Valletta.