Spanish warship to assist transfer of refugees stranded off Italy

Announcement by Madrid comes as 15 refugees stuck on Open Arms rescue vessel jump overboard and try to swim ashore.

    Asylum seekers swim after jumping off the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms, close to the Italian shore in Lampedusa [Guglielmo Mangiapane/ Reuters]
    Asylum seekers swim after jumping off the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms, close to the Italian shore in Lampedusa [Guglielmo Mangiapane/ Reuters]

    Spain is dispatching a navy ship to assist the transfer of scores of stranded asylum seekers to a Spanish port, as the rescue boat that picked them up nearly three weeks ago remains anchored off the coast of an Italian island amid a standoff with Italy's far-right interior minister.

    Describing the situation on board the Open Arms vessel as a "humanitarian emergency", Madrid said on Tuesday it was deploying the Audaz warship to escort the boat and its passengers to a port on the Spanish island of Mallorca.

    "The Audaz, which will leave this afternoon at 5pm (15:00 GMT), will sail for three days to Lampedusa where it will take charge of the people taken in by the Open Arms," the Spanish government said in a statement.

    "After analysing various options, the Spanish government ... considers this is the most suitable" for "the humanitarian emergency on board the Open Arms," it added.

    The announcement came as 15 asylum seekers on the Open Arms boat, which is run by an eponymous Spanish NGO, jumped into the water in a "desperate" bid to try and swim to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

    The vessel has been anchored within swimming distance of the island for days as Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refuses to allow refugee rescue ships to dock as part of his anti-immigration policies.

    Live video showed people wearing life vests floating in the sea, some in groups and some individually, with a coastguard vessel nearby and rubber dinghies trying to reach them.

    Open Arms said the Italian coastguard rescued all 15 people and brought them to Lampedusa.

    The situation was "out of control", the charity warned, with some of the asylum seekers stuck for 19 days after being rescued at sea off the coast of Libya

    'Refugee camp of Europe' 

    There were initially 147 refugees and migrants on board the ship. But in recent days, dozens of them have been evacuated because they were underage or ill. 

    Some 83 passengers remain on board. They are sleeping jammed together on deck and sharing two toilets.

    "All of these people come from Libya, come from situations of abuse, violations and all kind of extortions and they are in a really terrible psychological state. After their rescue 19 days ago, we were supposed to arrive to a safe port to be able to disembark," Laura Lanuza, a spokeswoman for Open Arms, told Al Jazeera. 

    "It has been five days since we could enter into Italian waters and they can see the coast 200 metres away right now. And they see they cannot reach the coast, so they feel like they are in jail," she said from Barcelona in Spain.

    Six European Union countries - France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg - have offered to take in the rescued people.

    Faced with Italy's protracted refusal to allow the refugees to disembark, Spain at the weekend offered up its southern port of Algeciras, which the NGO said could "not be achieved" due to the distance and tensions on board the ship.

    Madrid then offered up Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, nearer but still around 1,000km from Lampedusa.

    The charity described this offer as "totally incomprehensible" and continued to demand the ship be allowed to dock in Lampedusa.

    Spain's Defence Minister Margarita Robles has heavily criticised Italy - and particularly Salvini - for the situation.

    The Italian minister "has shown he doesn't care about human lives", Robles said on Tuesday, a day after describing Salvini's stance towards Open Arms as "a disgrace to humanity as a whole".

    Salvini suggested on Tuesday that the Open Arms was exaggerating the problems on board. Of eight people taken ashore on Monday night for urgent medical attention, he said, only two had health problems.

    "Spanish NGO, Spanish ship, Spanish port: The coherence and strength of Italy has paid off. We are no longer the refugee camp of Europe," he said in a statement.

    Salvini's standoff with Open Arms comes as he is trying to force Italy into snap elections. The ruling coalition, in danger of collapse, has split over the issue.

    Meanwhile, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated by two French humanitarian groups and has 356 rescued migrants on board, has been sailing between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa as it waits for a port of safety to be assigned.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies