Charity says refugees stranded off Italy should be flown to Spain

On standoff's 18th day, Open Arms calls Spanish offer to allow ship disembark at port 1,000km away 'incomprehensible'.

    Open Arms has been anchored off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa for days [Alessandro Serrano/ AFP]
    Open Arms has been anchored off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa for days [Alessandro Serrano/ AFP]

    An offer by Madrid to allow a refugee rescue ship anchored off an Italian island to disembark at a Spanish port some 1,000km away is unfeasible, the charity running the vessel has said, calling, instead, for the chartering of a plane to fly the 107 stranded people to Spain.

    The proposal on Monday came amid an 18-day standoff between the Open Arms charity and Italy's far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who refuses to let the asylum seekers rescued by the Spanish NGO from leaving the ship.

    The vessel, also called Open Arms, has been anchored within swimming distance of the island of Lampedusa for days. 

    Spain has offered to let the rescued people, who were plucked from traffickers' dinghies in the Mediterranean Sea earlier in August, to disembark at the nearest Spanish port in the Balearic Islands, according to Open Arms.

    But the charity called the suggestion "incomprehensible", citing the precarious psychological state of the rescued people and the limitations of its small ship. 

    "While our boat is 800 metres off the coast of Lampedusa, European states are asking a small NGO like ours to face ... three days of sailing in harsh weather conditions," it said in a statement. 

    Instead, Ricardo Gatti, an official with Open Arms, suggested flying the rescued people to the Spanish capital, Madrid. 

    "To give dignity to the shipwrecked, they could transfer them to Catania [in the island of Sicily], and from there, in a plane, to Madrid," Gatti told reporters on the dock at Lampedusa, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

    "To rent a Boeing for 200 persons costs 240 euros [$265] a passenger," he was quoted as saying.

    Open Arms founder Oscar Camps on Sunday posted a video showing four people jumping off the ship in a desperate bid to swim ashore before they were stopped and brought back.

    "It is urgent to end this inhumane and unacceptable situation which the people who we rescued at sea are living," Open Arms said.

    'Political games'

    Spain and five other European Union countries last week offered to take the people on board the vessel, but until they disembark the distribution plan cannot be set in motion

    Earlier on Monday, the Spanish government criticised Italy for blocking the asylum seekers and said it had not received a "clear and direct reply" from Open Arms on how to proceed.

    "It is not a question of accepting or not accepting" the offer, an Open Arms spokeswoman said.

    "The answer we gave them is that we cannot guarantee the safety of these people on our boat. Since Italy and Spain have assumed responsibility of these people, they should find a solution."

    The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, on Monday welcomed Spain's "good will" but urged "all member states and NGOs to cooperate and find a solution which will allow the people on board the Open Arms to disembark as soon as possible".

    Carmelo La Magra, a priest in Lampedusa who has been working with migrants and refugees there, said every extra day spent on the ship "is like an extension of a torture".

    "These are political games, maybe a show of power but what is worse is that this is done on the backs of these poor and vulnerable people," he said.

    But Salvini wrote in a comment on social media that he was "not giving up" on his closed ports stance, despite a series of setbacks last week.

    Earlier in August, Salvini signed a decree banning the Open Arms from Italian waters, citing public order concerns. 

    But an Italian court overruled the ban and cleared Open Arms to make its way to Italy. 

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    Salvini then signed a new order blocking the ship, but Italy's Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta blocked it as an act of "conscience".

    Trenta is part of the 5-Star Movement, which is in a governing coalition with Salvini's League. The dispute laid bare the split between the two parties. 

    Salvini is seeking to end the coalition with a no-confidence vote and early election that he hopes would make him the head of a new government.

    But his move has not gone to plan. 

    5-Star and the opposition Democratic Party have stalled any debate of the League's no-confidence motion and many of their politicians are now openly discussing forming a coalition among themselves to sideline Salvini.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies