Italy gave permission for 47 migrants stranded on board a rescue vessel to disembark in Sicily on Wednesday, as British crew members said they feared being arrested.
Matteo Salvini, the country’s hardline interior minister, has accused the NGO Sea Watch of aiding and abetting illegal migration by rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean and bringing them to Italian shores.
In a protracted standoff between the rescuers and the populist coalition, the migrants were stuck on the Sea Watch 3 for 11 days before finally being allowed to come ashore near the town of Syracusa in eastern Sicily.
The Italian government ordered the vessel to proceed to the port of Catania, to the north of Syracusa.
“We’ve been given very little information and we don’t even know if the crew is going to be arrested,” Brendan Waterhouse, 42, one of four British crewmen on the ship, told The Daily Telegraph.
“We will feel relieved but saddened that we were stuck for so many days with people on board who are suffering from PTSD, who were tortured, beaten and sold as slaves in Libya.
“It is heartless to leave them at sea, kept in small rooms like prisoners. I’ve watched them sob their hearts out and it is gutting,” said Mr Waterhouse, who has been a firefighter for 17 years and lives in Matlock, Derbs.
Among the minors on board was a boy who Mr Waterhouse estimated to be aged around 12 or 13.
“He crossed the Sahara by himself to Libya and then made the most dangerous sea crossing in the world. He wants to find his father in Marseilles. If he was British we’d be writing books about him but instead we are leaving him on a boat to cry himself to sleep.”
The Italian government agreed to let the migrants ashore after six other EU countries, including France, Malta and Germany, said they would accept them. A small number will remain in Italy.
Mr Salvini said the deal was a vindication of his insistence that Italy must not be left alone to deal with the migration issue, having accepted around 600,000 asylum seekers in the last five years.
"Mission accomplished! Once again, thanks to the work of the Italian government and the determination of the interior ministry, Europe has been forced to intervene and assume its responsibilities," he said.
He called for an investigation to be opened into the crew of the rescue ship and the German NGO that operates it, also called Sea Watch.
Kim Heaton-Heather, 37, head of mission and another British member of the crew, said he hoped that the ship could take on board fresh supplies, a new crew and then head back out to sea to continue its rescue mission.
The migrants, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa, were suffering from “severe psychological issues and trauma from what they have experienced”, he said.
The crackdown on migration has profoundly divided Italy.
While the government has been accused of xenophobia and a lack of compassion by some Italians, others have applauded the tough stance adopted since last summer.
“Italy is a welcoming country, we’ve demonstrated that over the years, but we are not the Cinderella of Europe,” said Ida Carmina, the mayor of the town of Porto Empedocle in Sicily.
She said the Sea Watch 3 should have taken the migrants to Tunisia, which was closer to the point of rescue than Italy. “There’s no dictatorship there. Instead they came to Italian waters.”
Ruben Neugebauer, Sea Watch’s spokesman, said: “We are happy that our guests will finally be allowed to reach dry land, that this hostage situation is over.
“But it’s a dark day for Europe because it took 11 days to reach this deal. We need solutions to the issue of migrants, not endless negotiations at the expense of people who are in distress.”
In Brussels, the UN’s most senior refugee official criticised European governments for refusing to take in "a few miserable people."
Filippo Grandi, High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "It’s a race between countries not to take people. So it’s a negative race. It’s an anti-solidarity race that the governments for political reasons are performing."
The fact that "this continent with all its power, money, technology, means, allows people to die in the Mediterranean at the rate of six per day is quite dramatic," he said.
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