By RENATA BRITO and FRANCES D’EMILIO Associated Press
ABOARD THE OCEAN VIKING (AP) — A charity rescue ship with 82 migrants aboard received permission Saturday to sail to a tiny southern Italian island, but Italy’s foreign minister cautioned against interpreting the OK as a sign the new government is easing its crackdown on such vessels.
Ocean Viking’s crew said Italian authorities instructed the ship to sail to Lampedusa. By mid-afternoon it was near Lampedusa island but still in international waters.
It wasn’t immediately clear if Ocean Viking would actually dock or if the migrants might be transferred to Italian coast guard or border police vessels and then taken ashore.
The Norwegian-flagged ship, which had appealed for days for a port of safety, is operated by two humanitarian groups, Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee.
Ocean Viking carried out its first rescue, of 50 migrants who were struggling in an unseaworthy rubber dinghy launched by Libyan-based migrant smugglers, on Sept. 8. The others were rescued the next day. Among the migrants is a 1-year-old boy from Somalia.
“We just heard that we have been assigned a place of safety, we are now on our way” to Lampedusa, said Erkinalp Kesikli, of Doctors Without Borders.”
Migrants clapped with joy and excitement.
“We are very happy about the news this morning. It amazes us. This news amazes us,” said Myriam Annie Malang, one of the migrants. “We are arriving at a place where people understand and listen to us. We are very happy to learn that we are disembarking in Lampedusa.”
Malang said she had been beaten while detained in Libya, a common account of suffering among migrants waiting to depart the northern African country on smugglers’ boats. She said she had fled conflict between English- and French-speaking communities in Cameroon.
The previous government, under a rigid anti-migrant policy led by right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, banned charity rescue boats from entering Italy’s waters and disembarking migrants on Italy’s shores.
Premier Giuseppe Conte’s week-old coalition now contains the center-left Democrats, whose leaders have called for a more humane policy on the rescue boats.
Italy’s current and previous governments have insisted on more solidarity from fellow European Union nations, saying the migrants set out on their journeys seeking asylum or better economic conditions in Europe as a whole, not necessarily Italy.
Italy’s new foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, leader of the coalition’s senior partner, the populist 5-Star Movement, cautioned against concluding his government was softening its stance on private rescue boats.
“I believe there’s a big misunderstanding about a safe port given to Ocean Viking,” Di Maio told reporters. “It was assigned a port because the EU adhered to our request to take the great share of the migrants.”
Germany’s interior minister said in a report published on Saturday his country is prepared to take in a quarter of migrants rescued off the Italian coast as the European Union tries to find a solution to repeated standoffs involving humanitarian groups’ ships.
Without naming the countries, SOS Mediterranee said the 82 survivors will be resettled in “several states of the European Union.”
The NGO’s statement said Saturday’s instruction to sail to Lampedusa “is an encouraging signal that several European states, including Italy, have agreed to work together.”
Germany and other EU countries have advocated finding at least an interim solution to the impasse over rescues in the Mediterranean Sea, ahead of a meeting of the bloc’s interior ministers Sept. 23 in Malta.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was quoted as telling Saturday’s edition of German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that talks are still ongoing “but if everything remains as discussed, we can take 25% of the people rescued from distress at sea who turn up off Italy.”
He said that, in practice, Germany has already taken in around that proportion to date.
Italian state TV on Friday said France is considering a similar arrangement.
Di Maio also said he was working on aid deals that would improve economic conditions in the migrants’ homelands and to achieve more bilateral repatriation agreements.
He stressed the “principle that whoever can’t stay here must go back, and whoever can stay here, is in Europe and not in Italy.”
Doctors Without Borders had pleaded that the migrants not get caught up in the wait for such agreement among European Union countries, many of which have long resisted Italy’s appeals for solidarity in accepting the migrants.
Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to say that the migrants were rescued on Sept. 8, not Sept. 15.