MARSEILLE/ROME: A vessel carrying 422 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya has been given permission to dock in Italy after issuing an urgent appeal for shelter from a looming storm, its operator said on Sunday.

The SOS Mediterranee group, which operates the Ocean Viking rescue ship, said it had received the green light to bring the migrants ashore in the Sicilian port of Augusta after several earlier appeals went unheeded.

It said it expected the vessel to arrive in Sicily on Sunday evening.

The French-based group said its passengers included babies, children, pregnant women and unaccompanied minors.

“They must urgently be disembarked in a safe port,” Luisa Albera, the head of the group’s rescue operations, had earlier urged, warning that weather conditions in the central Mediterranean were deteriorating.

She described the health of several of the migrants as “fragile”.

Eight tested positive for Covid-19 and were isolating onboard the ship, she added.

Libya has become a key jump-off point for irregular migration to Europe in the chaotic years since the 2011 overthrow and killing of dictator Moamer Qadhafi in a Nato-backed uprising.

While many migrants have drowned in rubber dinghies and rickety fishing boats, thousands have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Libya, with the support of Italy and the EU. NGOs have slammed the returns, arguing that Libya is not safe for the migrants.

The Ocean Viking returned to sea on January 11 after being blocked in Italy for five months.

So far it has rescued 424 people, of which 422 remain onboard after a pregnant woman and her partner were airlifted to safety in Malta. More than 1,200 migrants and asylum-seekers died while crossing the Mediterranean in 2020, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The migrants were rescued in separate operations in the central Mediterranean Sea on Thursday and Friday, including 121 who were crowded into a rubber dinghy. Some of the passengers fell into the sea during that rescue operation but were brought to safety, SOS Mediterranee said in a statement by Luisa Albera, search and rescue coordinator aboard the Ocean Viking. In all, four distinct rescue operations were carried out over two days. Many of those rescued are women and children.

Originally, a total of 424 were rescued, but a pregnant woman and her companion were evacuated urgently by helicopter to Malta on Saturday, the statement said.

Eight of the rescued migrants have Covid-19, according to tests administered by the crew, and were being isolated on board despite the difficulties of crowded conditions on deck.

But although strict Covid-19 mitigation protocols apply on board the Ocean Viking, this is a vessel of 69 metres (228 feet) in length, Albera said. “This situation is a further reason for the remaining 422 survivors, who are in confined space on the aft deck, to be promptly disembarked in a place of safety,” she said.

Among the passengers are other pregnant women, babies and unaccompanied minors among the children.

During the pandemic, Italy has taken to transferring migrants from rescue ships anchored in port to other vessels where the passengers can protectively quarantine, although children are usually taken ashore to shelter.

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2021

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