Migrants jump off the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms, close to the Italian shore in Lampedusa, Italy August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Migrants leap from the Open Arms ship © Reuters

An Italian prosecutor ordered the immediate evacuation of dozens of migrants stranded on a boat off the island of Lampedusa, after a day of drama in which Spain sent a navy ship to rescue those aboard and at least 15 people jumped in the sea to escape.

The move by Luigi Patronaggio, chief prosecutor for Agrigento, came after he visited the Open Arms, a ship run by a Spanish NGO that describes the migrants’ predicament on board as “out of control”.

According to Italian media reports, under the terms of Mr Patronaggio’s order, more than 80 migrants remaining on board were to be taken to Lampedusa and the boat seized.

The decision was a reproach to Matteo Salvini, Italy’s minister of interior, who has made closing Italian ports to NGO rescue boats a priority and spearheaded a new law this month that allows vessels to be fined up to €1m for illegally entering Italian waters.

It also overtook a decision by Spain’s caretaker Socialist government to deploy the navy patrol ship Audaz to rescue the migrants, following increasing tensions with Italy and Mr Salvini in particular.

Madrid said it would send the Audaz to Lampedusa to take the remaining migrants on the boat to Mallorca — but that it would take the Spanish patrol vessel three days to arrive.

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, said in a tweet that “with this measure Spain will solve, this week, the humanitarian emergency”.

Open Arms said the Italian coastguard had rescued the 15 people who jumped into the sea and had taken them to Lampedusa. 

The Open Arms captain had previously warned Italian authorities that the crew of 17 could no longer keep order on the boat as frustrated migrants resorted to fighting. 

At the weekend, the Spanish government said it would allow the Open Arms to dock at a Spanish port because of Mr Salvini’s “inconceivable” policy of “closing all [Italy’s] doors”.

The NGO rejected that offer because it said the voyage to Spain would take too long.

Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University, suggested Mr Sánchez was responding to increased political and media pressure and was seeking to “put the spotlight on Italy as the country that is not meeting its obligations and distinguish it from Spain”.

The Spanish PM had been criticised for his earlier, more tentative policy on the Open Arms, which contrasted with his decision last year to take in 629 migrants on another rescue boat after Italy refused to allow the vessel to dock.

Mr Simón said that the Open Arms migrants would ultimately be distributed between various EU countries.

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