Norway insists Italy responsible for people stranded on NGO ships

The Norwegian government says it bears no responsibility for refugees and migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea on board boats flying the country’s national flag, after Italy called on Norway and Germany to take charge of almost 1,000 people stranded off its coast and awaiting permission to dock.

Italy’s new right-wing government has remained silent to repeated requests by rescue groups to provide safe harbour, effectively blocking at sea three charity vessels – the Norwegian flag-bearing Ocean Viking and Geo Barents, and the German-flagged Humanity 1 – for more than a week.

Rome last week sent letters to the embassies of Norway and Germany, saying NGO ships flying their flags were not following European security rules and were undermining what it described as the fight against undocumented immigration.

In its response, Norway said “the primary responsibility for coordinating the work to ensure a safe port for those in distress at sea lies with the state responsible for the search and rescue area where such assistance has been rendered.”

Ambassador Johan Vibe said in an email statement to Reuters that “Norway has no responsibility under human rights conventions or the law of the sea for persons taken on board private Norwegian-flagged vessels in the Mediterranean.”

Ocean Viking and Geo Barents have more than 800 people on board and are sailing off Sicily, while Humanity 1 has 179 people, including more than 100 unaccompanied minors and a seven-month-old baby with her mother.

Petra Krischok, a press officer on board Humanity 1, said the people were sleeping on the deck and could soon face rough seas after days of good weather. More than a quarter of the group had been sick with flu-like symptoms, she added.

Meanwhile, Italian authorities continue to allow arrivals of people rescued by Italian patrols, including 456 arriving in Calabria on Thursday.

Italy last month formed its first far-right-led government since the end of World War II, with Giorgia Meloni becoming the first woman to serve as prime minister.

Known for her firebrand nationalism, Meloni said during her first visit to the European Union headquarters on Thursday that “the priority for us becomes a priority that is already foreseen in the European regulations, which is the defence of external borders.”

Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, told local media the government had intended to give flag-bearing countries an “immediate signal”.

“We cannot bear the burden of migrants collected at sea by foreign vessels operating systematically without any coordination with local authorities,” he said.

Piantedosi drafted new measures alleging that the non-governmental groups violated procedure by not properly coordinating their rescues, a step setting the groundwork for Italy to close the ports.

Charities have denied circumventing procedures and say it is their duty to rescue people in distress at sea.

‘Let the ship in’

According to the United Nations refugee agency, coastal states are obligated to accept people from rescue ships “as soon as practicable” and governments should cooperate to provide a place of safety for survivors.

The German embassy on Wednesday urged Italy to provide swift help, saying NGO ships made an important contribution to saving lives at sea.

Separately, French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin said on Friday that international law makes clear that Italy, as the closest port, “must let the ship in”.

Darmanin said France and Germany have told the Italian government they are both ready to receive some of the people so that Italy will not “bear the burden alone”.

On Thursday, charity SOS Mediterranee which operates the Ocean Viking said it had asked Greece, Spain and France to help as Italy and Malta had not responded to its docking requests.

“Keeping survivors onboard ships hostages of political debate longer would be the result of a dramatic failure of European members and associated states,” Xavier Lauth, SOS Mediterranee’s director of operations, said in a statement.

More than 6,200 people have arrived in Italy since October 27, government data shows, compared with 1,400 in the same period in 2021.

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