ABOARD THE OCEAN VIKING (AP) — Italy allowed a charity rescue ship to sail Saturday to a tiny southern island so that 82 migrants aboard could be transferred to shore, but the country’s foreign minister cautioned against interpreting the move as a sign the new government is easing a crackdown on humanitarian vessels.
Shortly before midnight, all the migrants had been transferred off the Ocean Viking after several days stranded at sea prior to being given permission to sail to Lampedusa island.
Women, children and unaccompanied minors were put on an Italian coast guard vessel, while men were taken aboard a customs police boat, so all could be brought to Lampedusa’s dock.
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, Erkinalp Kesikli of Doctors Without Borders said earlier in the day after the ship received a call from Italian authorities about the permission.
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 in 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.
The Italian news agency ANSA said Germany, France, and Italy were expected to take about 24 migrants each, while the other 10 would go to Portugal or Luxembourg.
While Di Maio insisted that Italy wasn’t lifting the ban, championed by former Interior Minister Salvini, on docking by charity rescue boats, lawmakers from the left praised the resolution of Ocean Viking’s situation as a break with the previous government’s hard line.
“We have lived through, in the past year, a climate of hysteria whipped up for purely propaganda needs,” Loredana De Petris said, referring to Salvini’s insistence that Italy not become what he feared would be “Europe’s refugee camp.”
“We are finally closing one of the worst chapters for our country,” she added.
SOS Mediterranee called Saturday’s development “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 on 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.”
Di Maio described as unchanged “the principle that whoever can’t stay here must go back, and whoever can stay here, is in Europe and not in Italy.”
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.