ROME (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean disembarked on Friday in the southern Italian town of Augusta, in Sicily, after Rome-based maritime authorities agreed to give their ship a port.
The Ocean Viking vessel, operated by SOS Mediterranee, carried 572 people, including around 180 minors, after picking them up in six separate operations in Maltese and Libyan search and rescue areas, the European NGO said.
After asking the European Union to find a safe port for the migrants, the group said the situation onboard was deteriorating due to tension and exhaustion among those rescued.
“This news brings us relief and gives these people irrepressible joy,” said Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, referring to the Ocean Viking being able to dock.
SOS Mediterranee said all migrants would be tested for COVID-19 after disembarking the boat.
Migrant boat departures from North Africa towards Europe have picked up in 2021 after a decline in the previous few years and scores of people have died in recent weeks following shipwrecks as they tried to reach Italy.
Some 22,900 migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year – many of them fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East – compared with almost 7,700 in the same period last year, Interior Ministry data shows.
Several charity boats have been impounded in Italy in recent months after officials reported irregularities onboard.
Charity group MSF complained Italian authorities were using such inspections to prevent ships from returning to sea where many migrants die.
(Reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome; Editing by Matthew Lewis)