ABOARD SEA-WATCH 3, Mediterranean (Reuters) - After two weeks stranded at sea and battered by winter storms, migrants onboard a rescue ship are growing frustrated, supplies are dwindling and the crew are exhausted as European countries refuse to offer a safe port of call.
The Sea-Watch 3, a vessel run by a German humanitarian group, plucked 32 people from an unsafe boat off the coast of Libya on Dec. 22, including three small children who are suffering from seasickness and four teenagers, who are travelling alone.
The vessel is now in Maltese waters sheltering from high winds and rough seas. In an act of desperation, one migrant jumped into the frigid waters on Friday, trying to swim for shore, but was quickly pulled back on board by the crew.
“We are here on this boat and we do not understand what is happening,” Bob Kiangala, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told Reuters.
“We are not fish, we are not sharks, we are human beings like everyone else. We made this crossing, we risked our lives to get to Europe, and now that we have arrived, Europe refuses, and we do not know why,” he said.
Another German humanitarian group, Sea-Eye, is also in waters off Malta with 17 people rescued on Dec. 29 on board its ship.
This week almost two dozen humanitarian groups, including Amnesty International and the United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration, called on the European Union to offer a safe port to both vessels.
Until June last year, Italy took in almost all of the migrants rescued by humanitarian groups, but since then the new populist coalition government’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who leads the anti-immigrant League party, has closed the ports to rescue ships.
In a surprising move, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the 5-Star Movement, said that Italy would take in the women and children if Malta allowed the ships to dock.
“Malta should allow the immediate disembarkation of women and children and send them to Italy,” Di Maio wrote on Facebook on Friday. “Children shouldn’t pay the price of a Europe that turns its back so it cannot see.”
However, underscoring tensions within the government over migration, Salvini swiftly replied on his own Facebook page that Italy should not take in any more boat migrants.
“Human trafficking must be stopped. People escaping war should come to Italy by plane, as many already do, not by boat. We can send medicines, food and clothes to the boats, but enough of this blackmail,” he wrote. “I have not changed my mind.”
In recent months Spain and Malta have agreed to take in some rescued migrants, but often not before long negotiations with other EU countries. As a consequence, most humanitarian groups have abandoned sea rescue efforts.
Crew members on the Sea-Watch 3 are in good spirits but tired, getting an average of about five hours sleep a night, and the migrants, many of whom endured months of abuse in Libya after making a dangerous desert crossing, are showing signs of stress and mental fatigue, Sea-Watch’s head of mission, Philipp Hahn, said.
Sixteen-year-old Achuil Abdallah, who set off alone from his native South Sudan, said he is relieved to have escaped Libya and now is just hoping to reach dry land: “We all need help.”
Additional reporting by Angelo Amante, Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Crispian Balmer