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Saturday December 5th, 2020 7:06AM

Rescue ships stranded in Med as Europe fails to respond

By The Associated Press
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MILAN (AP) — The Spanish humanitarian ship Open Arms remained stuck Friday in the Mediterranean Sea off Italy's southernmost island for an eighth day, with no European government offering safe harbor to the 121 migrants on board and the vessel facing a fine of up to 1 million euros if it enters Italian waters.

The ship's dilemma is becoming the new normal as European governments increasingly shut their doors to migrants. The move is led by Italy's firebrand Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is popular for his hardline stance against migrant arrivals and who this week plunged Italy into a political crisis in an apparent play for power.

The NGO says Malta also refused to let the ship in, while Spain demurred saying it is not the closest safe port. The EU Commission said Friday it hasn't received any requests by a national government to intervene, as it typically requires. But spokeswoman Annika Breidhardt said it was reaching out to member states "to show solidarity." She noted a solution depended on "the willingness" of member states to step up.

In a bid to draw attention to the stand-off, actor Richard Gere boarded the ship some 27 nautical miles off Lampedusa on Friday. The actor helped bring food and supplies to the boat and asked for support for the ship, whose passengers include nine-month old Ethiopian twins.

"Help these people, our brothers and sisters," he said.

And Pope Francis, long a champion of the migrants, repeated in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa that the treatment of migrants "must never leave out the most important right of all: that of life."

"Immigrants arrive mostly to flee war or hunger, from the Middle East to Africa," he said.

Such stand-offs have persisted in the last 14 months since Italy's populist government took office and Salvini became interior minister, standing up to the EU and other member states that he blames for leaving Italy alone to manage migrant arrivals for too long.

He has targeted humanitarian rescue ships that he likens to migrant taxi services and raised the stakes this week, winning parliamentary approval for a new security decree that increased fines on ships entering Italian waters without permission to 1 million euros from 50,000 euros. The law has been scorned by the U.N. refugee agency that says it could deter rescue by private vessels at a moment when European government have largely halted their patrols.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella signed the decree Thursday with reservations. He noted the steep fine is to be applied without regard for the scale of the offense, against a high court ruling on penal sanctions. By that interpretation, for example, a sailboat with one migrant would face the same penalty as a ship with dozens or more.

Besides Open Arms, just one other ship is operating in the Mediterranean. The German NGO Sea-Eye said Friday it was leaving the search-and-rescue zone five days after it transferred 40 migrants to Malta military ships at Germany's request. A Norwegian-flagged ship operated by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders rescued 80 migrants from a rubber dinghy off Libya on Friday — but made no immediate request for a port.

Others that have been active in the central Mediterranean appear to be on standby waiting to see how the latest standoffs — and Salvini's threat — play out.

Migrant arrivals in Italy are down dramatically to some 4,042 so far this year, down 78% from last year's 18,897 and 96% from 96,847 in 2017. Many migrants continue to arrive on their own in Lampedusa often from Tunisia, despite Salvini's campaign against humanitarian rescue ship.

Open Arms founder Oscar Camps has indicated that he will do everything to avoid entering Italian waters without permission — saying the ship will do so only if there is a humanitarian crisis on board as stipulated by international maritime law.

"Salvini can say what he wants but maritime law and the courts will say what they have to say," Camps told Catalunya Radio on Wednesday. "If we have serious health problems on board, a serious problem evidently we will enter (port) here or wherever we are, the closest place, today and any other day because we are backed by law."

On top of any Italian fines, the Open Arms faces a fine of 900,000 euros ($1 million) at home for breaking the conditions under which Spain had granted it permission to sail a few months ago.

In a letter Wednesday to the EU Commission president, the new European Parliament President David Sassoli called for emergency assistance for the migrants stranded on Open Arms. They include 32 minors, among then nine-month old Ethiopian twins, and women who have visible signs of violence.

One woman, identified only as Hortensia, had gasoline thrown on her and was set on fire when she tried to escape her tormenter, he wrote.

"If Europe cannot protect that woman and her companions who have set out in search of a better life, it will mean that it has lost its soul, as well as its heart," Sassoli wrote.

___

Brito reported from Barcelona, Spain. Joseph Wilson contributed from Barcelona.

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