Migrants wait to disembark from Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti in the port of Catania, Italy, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. A delegation from Italy’s guarantor of personal rights office has boarded a coast guard ship in a Sicilian port with 150 African migrants stuck aboard for days, after the Italian interior minister vowed none will set foot on Italian soil. (Orietta Scardino/ANSA via AP)

Italian rights guarantor boards migrant ship blocked in port

August 23, 2018 - 11:29 am

ROME (AP) — A delegation from the office of Italy's guarantor of personal rights boarded a coast guard ship docked at a Sicilian port on Thursday, to evaluate the plight of 150 asylum-seekers rescued a week ago but forced to stay onboard by the nation's staunchly anti-migrant interior minister.

The vessel Diciotti rescued about 190 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea on Aug. 16 from a foundering boat launched by human traffickers, and quickly evacuated some to Sicily for health problems. On Wednesday, 27 unaccompanied minors, all teenagers, were allowed to disembark in the port of Catania, Sicily, after a juvenile court judge's appeal.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Thursday described those aboard as "illegal immigrants," and said they won't be allowed to step foot on Italian soil.

RAI state radio said food was delivered to the Italian coast guard vessel, signaling Italy intended to wait it out until other European Union nations take the asylum-seekers, most of them Eritreans.

The minors, including two females, were described as having survived severe psychological distress and other cruel conditions in Libya, where they waited as long as three years for a chance to leave on migrant smugglers' unseaworthy boats.

Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, an advocacy group for minors, told Sky TG24 TV at Catania's dock that the teenagers told authorities they had been kept in rooms without light for months in Libya, and now were suffering eye problems.

Theirs is a "story of daily horrors," Di Benedetto said.

The rights delegation donned masks and gloves to guard against disease. Many of the migrants were said to have scabies.

As he has done in other recent rescues, Salvini insisted fellow European Union nations take some of the asylum-seekers.

"Italy's no longer Europe's refugee camp," he tweeted. "Upon my authorization, no one is disembarking from the Diciotti."

His League party, as a coalition partner in Italy's new populist government, promised to crack down on illegal immigration.

Some 600,000 migrants in recent years who were rescued from smugglers' boats were disembarked in southern Italian ports. But even as arrivals via the central Mediterranean Sea route have dropped dramatically this year, with Spain bearing more of the brunt in the western Mediterranean, Salvini is pressing his crackdown on migrants.

Some leaders in the government's main party, the 5-Star Movement, have distanced themselves from Salvini. Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli has said the migrants should be allowed to disembark, even though Europe must help.

Another 5-Star leader, Sen. Paola Nugnes, told Corriere della Sera newspaper that "the priority is to safeguard universal rights. Then, but only then, do you turn to Europe to discuss" the solution. She said the coalition alliance has been "complicated" from the start.

Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com

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