Italy will allow 116 rescued migrants on its Gregoretti coastguard ship to disembark “within hours”, the country’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini said, after EU countries agreed to share responsibility for looking after them.
Salvini, who is also Italy’s deputy prime minister, made the announcement on social media on Wednesday, after forcing the migrants to remain on the boat docked in Sicily for five days.
Earlier on Wednesday, an EU Commission spokesperson told AFP news agency that France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal would join the Italian Roman Catholic church in caring for the migrants.
The commission did not give a breakdown on how the migrants would be shared out among the countries but the official said most would stay in Italy.
About 140 migrants, who set off from Libya on two boats, were picked up by Italian patrols and transferred to the coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti.
The operation took place on the same day that at least 115 other migrants were feared drowned in a shipwreck off Libya – according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Several migrants aboard the Gregoretti have already been evacuated for medical attention, including a seven-months pregnant woman, her partner and two children as well as 15 minors.
But Salvini insisted the remaining migrants would not be able to leave the vessel until other European countries agreed to take them in.
Salvini has taken a hard line against migrants rescued at sea being brought to Italy.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last week that 14 EU members had approved a plan to redistribute refugees rescued in the Mediterranean and eight said they would actively take part.
The proposal drew Salvini’s ire because it still involved allowing migrants to disembark on Italian territory.
“A European solution has been found for the women and men stranded on the ship Gregoretti,” Macron said on Twitter on Wednesday.
“They will disembark in Italy, then be welcomed in six countries, including France. Our country is true to its principles: responsibility, solidarity and European cooperation.”
On Sunday, Pope Francis called on the international community to “act swiftly” to help avoid further deaths.
“I have learned with sorrow the news of the dramatic shipwreck that happened in recent days in the Mediterranean where dozens of migrants, including women and children, have lost their lives,” he said during his weekly Angelus address on St Peter’s Square.
“I am renewing my call that the international community act swiftly and decisively to avoid that such tragedies repeat themselves and guarantee the safety and dignity of all.”
Former Italian navy chief Giuseppe De Giorgi, who launched the Mare Nostrum maritime rescue plan in 2013, hailed the Gregoretti’s crew who “were committed to accomplishing with honour their duty as sailors to protect lives at sea”.
In August 2018, more than 150 people were stranded on the Italian coastguard ship Diciotti for over a week before an agreement between the church, Albania and Ireland allowed them to disembark.