Refugees Jump off Rescue Boat to Try to Reach Italian Island

A refugee is comforted by a crew member of the Open Arms Spanish humanitarian boat off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Sunday. (AP photo/Francisco Gentico)

ROME (AP) — Several refugees jumped into the sea from a Spanish rescue boat Sunday in a thwarted bid to reach shore in Italy, where the government’s hardline interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has refused to let the 107 passengers disembark.

“We have been warning for days, desperation has its limits,” said Open Arms founder Oscar Camps, who released a video showing four immigrants wearing orange life vests swimming toward Lampedusa island. Crew members from the humanitarian group’s ship swam quickly toward them so they could be brought back aboard.

In the evening, Open Arms urgently requested permission to enter Lampedusa’s port so the people aboard for 17 days could finally get off. It said their psychological and physical conditions are “at risk.”

“If the worst happens, Europe and Salvini will be responsible,” the charity said in a tweet.

In its formal request made by the boat’s captain, Marc Reig Creus, Open Arms offered an alternative solution: to transfer the 107 onto another, “adequate” ship that could swiftly reach the Spanish port of Algeciras, where Spain has said the migrants could disembark, given the dramatic situation of passengers and crew.

Open Arms told Italian authorities, including prosecutors, that the situation aboard “has become unmanageable,” and that the passengers are “prey to frequent anxiety and panic attacks.”

Salvini has denied docking permission because he claims charity rescue boats facilitate the smuggling of immigrants from the traffickers’ base in Libya. Salvini’s resolve has seen previous similar standoffs end with disembarkation ultimately taking place in Italy or elsewhere in Europe.

On Sunday, Spain offered one of its ports for the passengers to come ashore, but Open Arms said it would be absurd to undertake a journey that could take a week.

For days, Open Arms has been anchored off Lampedusa, a fishing and vacation island between Sicily and Northern Africa. The boat initially had 147 passengers aboard when it reached Italian waters. In the past few days, 40 people have transferred by Italian coast guard vessels to Lampedusa, including a few who were ailing and 27 believed to be minors.

After the people who had jumped ship were back aboard, several women passengers wailed or pressed their hands to their head as if in disbelief. A few of the male passengers could be seen gesturing and shouting angrily, while crew members tried to calm tempers.

With Salvini challenging the survival of Italy’s government in a push for an early election he hopes will give him the premiership, he is hardening his already stiff resolve to keep humanitarian ships from bringing rescued people to Italy. His League party blames immigrants for crime, and its popularity among voters has been soaring.

A Norwegian-flagged ship, Ocean Viking, operated by two French humanitarian groups, has been sailing for days with 356 rescued people aboard between Malta and Lampedusa and other tiny Italian island, Linosa, awaiting assignment of a safe port. Salvini vowed to block that ship, too.

“Whoever hangs tough wins,” Salvini said. “In Italy there’s no place for traffickers.”

Open Arms carried out its first rescue of this group 17 days earlier, plucking people to safety from smugglers’ unseaworthy dinghies off Libya.

Seeking to break the standoff, Spain on Sunday offered a far southern port, Algeciras, just west of Gibraltar, to Open Arms, while acknowledging that the harbor is distant and unsuitable to disembark so many people.

The office of Spain’s caretaker prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said the offer reflected the “emergency situation” on the boat and Salvini’s “unconceivable response” in refusing docking.

“Right now, Spain is the only country ready to receive (the boat),” Sanchez’s office said.

But a spokeswoman for the Spanish NGO, Laura Lanuza, said undertaking such a long voyage to Spain would be “crazy.”

“There is anxiety, bouts of violence, control is becoming increasingly difficult,” she said. “To embark on a six-day sailing with these people on board who are at the very limit of their possibilities would be crazy. We can’t put their health and lives at risk.”

Salvini on Sunday told the ship to go to Spain, and in a tweet contended that Open Arms was staying anchored off Lampedusa “just to provoke me and Italy.”

Spain and five other countries have offered to take the passengers, dividing them among themselves, but that didn’t change Salvini’s mind against docking.

Open Arms contended that Salvini is using the 107 people for “xenophobic and racist propaganda.”

In a separate tweet, Camps blasted Salvini for exploiting desperate people’s lives for political gain. “What more does @matteosalvinimi need for his political campaign? Deaths?”

On Tuesday, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte will address the Senate, where Salvini’s party has submitted a no-confidence vote against him, though the League is the 14-month-old, government’s junior coalition partner. Conte could resign, possibly paving the way for an election in a couple of months just as Salvini’s popularity is soaring in opinion polls.

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