German charity ship taking 108 rescued migrants to Italy

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ROME (AP) — A ship operated by a German charity was sailing on Monday toward a northern Italian port with 108 migrants aboard after rescuing them in recent days from two unseaworthy vessels in the central Mediterranean.

The charity Sea-Eye said its ship, Sea-Eye 4, plucked up 68 migrants from a foundering smugglers’ vessel last week, then sailed Saturday toward another vessel in distress. The second rescue, of 45 migrants aboard a plastic vessel, was carried out Sunday night in waters within Malta’s search-and-rescue area, the charity said in a statement.

Malta didn’t aid in the second rescue, and Italy ordered Sea-Eye 4 to head immediately to its northern port of Livorno without taking on additional migrants, the charity said.

But because “were no other rescue vessels in the immediate vicinity, the SEA-EYE 4 remained in operation and continued to search for the people missing,” it added. During the 35 hours it took Sea-Eye 4 to get to the second vessel, it said it was in contact with two merchant ships in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone that agreed to help. Eventually, one of the two merchant ships reached the plastic boat first and aided in the rescue, according to Sea-Eye.

It wasn’t clear when Sea-Eye 4 would reach Livorno, the port assigned by Italian authorities for disembarkation.

Of the second rescue, Sea-Eye said, nearly all aboard were traumatized by their ordeal and migrants had burns from fuel spills. It added that “in total, the people were out at sea for six days and had to fear for their lives.”

Human smugglers, many of them based in Libya, launch flimsy rubber or plastic dinghies and rickety fishing boats toward Italian shores, typically after charging the migrants thousands of dollars for the dangerous sea passage.

Most of those migrants who make it to Italy are fleeing poverty, not war or persecution, and thus risk having their asylum requests denied by Italian authorities.

Italy’s two-month-old government, headed by far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni, has said it wants to discourage charity rescue missions, contending that those operations essentially help facilitate the smugglers’ business.

For years, Italy has argued — generally without much success — that because many of the migrants hope to obtain work in northern Europe, other European Union nations should host a large number of the rescued migrants who reach Italian shores.

By assigning ports on the Italian mainland, instead of in Sicily, hundreds of kilometers (miles) closer to the scenes of rescue, Italian authorities essentially force the charity boats to spend more days to reach the mainland docks — and thus have fewer days to spend at sea aiding migrants.

A key partner in Meloni’s coalition is the right-wing League, a party headed by anti-migrant leader Matteo Salvini.

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