A German charity rescue ship with 40 migrants on board has defied authorities and docked in the port of the Italian island of Lampedusa after being at sea for more than two weeks.
Italian news agency ANSA reported that an Italian customs police boat attempted to prevent the Sea-Watch 3 charity ship from docking on multiple occasions, but had to get out of the way in order to not be trapped against a wharf.
Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer told the AFP news agency the ship’s German captain Carola Rackete, 31, was arrested.
The 40 migrants disembarked soon after the vessel docked early on Saturday, one kissing the ground, others hugging ship crew members before boarding a bus.
Rackete was cuffed by police for refusing to obey a military vessel, after manoeuvring the ship into port without permission, a crime punishable by between three and 10 years in jail.
While five European countries on Friday agreed to take in the migrants, permission for the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3 to enter port and disembark the migrants did not come.
Rackete called the situation “incredibly tense” on Friday saying the migrants were finding the uncertainty “difficult … psychologically”.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and head of the right-wing League party, had previously said he would only allow Rackete to dock when other European Union states agree to immediately take the migrants.
Even then, Italian authorities would seize the ship and prosecute its captain for assisting people-smugglers, he said.
Premier Giuseppe Conte told reporters at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on Friday three or four European countries were willing to take part in the redistribution of the migrants.
In the meantime, prosecutors in Sicily launched a probe into Rackete on suspicion of aiding “illegal immigration”.
“Even though in the afternoon the prosecution has opened an investigation against me, at the same time they notified us that they will not help to bring the rescued off the ship,” Rackete said in a video statement on Twitter.
“I have decided to enter the harbour, which is free at night, on my own,” she added.
— Sea-Watch International (@seawatch_intl) June 29, 2019
Rackete had previously warned she was worried that those rescued off crisis-hit Libya might hurt themselves if the standoff continued.
The ship and its captain were met by applause from a group of supporters standing on the pier on Lampedusa.
It's been almost 60h since we declared a state of emergency. No one listened. No one took responsibility. Once more it's up to us, to Cpt. #CarolaRackete and her crew, to bringing the 40 people to safety. pic.twitter.com/rcxnMst4fO
— Sea-Watch International (@seawatch_intl) June 28, 2019
With Italy restricting port entry, the Dutch-flagged vessel had been stuck in the Mediterranean, during a heatwave, after rescuing 53 migrants drifting in an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya on June 12.
Since then, 13 migrants had been evacuated and brought to Lampedusa on medical or humanitarian grounds, in three separate operations, but Salvini insisted the rest were unwelcome.
Five Italian left-wing MPs spent Friday night on board the Sea-Watch 3 in a gesture of solidarity.
“We’ll remain on board until all of the migrants have disembarked,” said Graziano Delrio, who was the minister in charge of the Italian coastguard between 2015 and 2018.
The young, dreadlocked captain Rackete has become a symbol of defiance and a left-wing hero in Italy for challenging Salvini’s “closed-ports” policy.
“We are proud of our captain, she did exactly the right thing. She upheld the law of the sea and brought people to safety,”Johannes Bayer, chairman of the German charity Sea-Watch, said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Salvini announced on Saturday that the captain was a “criminal”, who committed an “act of war” against Italy.
He also said that that the “pirate ship” was seized, a “maximum fine” will be implemented to the NGO and that all migrants were sent to other European countries.
The ship left the port after the migrants disembarked.
🔴🔴🔴 Comandante fuorilegge arrestata.
Nave pirata sequestrata.
Maxi multa alla ONG straniera.
Immigrati tutti distribuiti in altri Paesi europei.
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) June 29, 2019
Salvini has seen his popularity inch steadily upwards on his hardline anti-immigrant platform.
Despite government efforts, migrants are continuing to arrive in Italy, even if not in the same numbers as during the period between 2014 and 2017.
Nearly 500 migrants have landed on the country’s coast over the past 16 days, according to the Italian Interior Ministry.
Meanwhile, the founder of Spanish migrant rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms said he was prepared to risk prison in order to save lives in the Mediterranean, following Rackete’s example.
“If I have to pay the price through prison time or a fine in order to save the lives of some people, then I will do so,” the group’s founder, Oscar Camps, told AFP by telephone.
The Open Arms ship took to the waters off the Libyan coast on Thursday, a decision which could cost it a fine of up to 900,000 euros ($1.02m) from the Spanish government, Camps said.
“At the moment there is no organisation out there [off the Libyan coast],” said Camps.