Tensions Build on Migrant Ship Off Italy; 10 Jump Overboard

Migrants jump off the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms, close to the Italian shore in Lampedusa, Italy, Tuesday. (Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Tensions rose on a rescue ship stranded off southern Italy on Tuesday, as 10 of the migrants aboard jumped into the sea and tried to swim ashore, according to the Spanish charity that operates the vessel.

The ship Open Arms, at sea for 19 days with almost 100 migrants on board, has been waiting just off the port of Lampedusa, asking permission to bring the mostly African migrants ashore, despite an Italian ban on private rescue ships docking.

Italy says it has borne too much responsibility for handling African migration to Europe. Its interior minister says the charity-run ships have become “taxis” for people smugglers.

“Nine people have thrown themselves into the water trying desperately to reach the coast of Lampedusa. Our lifeguards and Italian coastguards are trying to rescue them. The situation is out of control,” the Open Arms posted.

It had earlier posted that one other migrant had jumped in the water and posted a video of the migrant swimming toward the shore, his way blocked by an Italian Coast Guard boat.

“Day 19: a night of panic and a man in the water,” the charity wrote. “The night began with an urgent medical evacuation, and this morning a man has jumped into the water trying to reach the land before his eyes….  The situation is desperate.”

The man overboard, a Syrian, was rescued by Italian authorities, who are caring for him, an Open Arms charity spokeswoman said.

Dozens of migrants have been taken ashore since the ship entered Italian waters because they were said to be minors or ill. The remaining migrants still sleep jammed together on deck and share two toilets.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini suggested on Tuesday that the charity was exaggerating the problems on board. Of eight migrants taken ashore on Monday night for urgent medical attention, he said, only two had health problems.

“I will never go back,” he told Radio 24.

The standoff has fueled Salvini’s campaign against migrant boats from Africa, and comes as he is trying to drag Italy into snap elections. The ruling coalition, in danger of collapse later on Tuesday, has split over the issue.

Salvini’s political rival, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who controls the Coast Guard but not port access, has offered to take the migrants on a Coast Guard vessel to Spain, which has offered them safe harbor.

But Toninelli has set a condition – that Madrid de-register the Open Arms’ ship by removing its Spanish flag. Without a flag, it would be difficult for the ship to continue running rescue missions; its insurance would be invalid and it could be intercepted at any time by a navy or coast guard force.

Separate talks are also under way between Italy and Spain to find a diplomatic solution, said a source in Rome familiar with the matter. She did not elaborate.

“They want to take the flag away from us. The price is very high,” Open Arms’ director and founder, Oscar Camps, said in remarks published by El Mundo newspaper on Tuesday.

Camps has ruled out the option of taking the migrants to Spain on the Open Arms’ ship, saying conditions on board were too miserable for them to endure such a journey.

Spain’s left-wing government offered on Monday to allow the ship to dock at a Spanish port, and it and five other European Union nations have offered to take the migrants.