A screen shot from video footage shows a rescue team helping migrants who jumped from the Open Arms charity ship, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, August 20 2019. Picture: LOCALTEAM / AFP
A screen shot from video footage shows a rescue team helping migrants who jumped from the Open Arms charity ship, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, August 20 2019. Picture: LOCALTEAM / AFP

Madrid — An Italian prosecutor ordered on Tuesday the seizure of the Open Arms migrant ship and the evacuation of the migrants on board, ending a prolonged stand-off between the Spanish charity and the government in Rome.

The Open Arms ship, run by a Spanish charity of the same name, has been stranded off the coast for nearly three weeks, with the charity saying that the migrants are distressed and urgently needed to find shelter.

Open Arms’ director and founder Oscar Camps confirmed the boat would dock in Lampedusa.

“After 19 days, we will disembark  in Lampedusa. The ship will be seized temporarily, but it is a cost that Open Arms assumes to ensure that people on board can be served,” he said on Twitter.

“We consider it essential to prioritise the migrants’ health and safety in this humanitarian emergency,” he added.

Spain sent a naval vessel earlier on Tuesday to rescue the migrants and take them to Mallorca after some of them jumped overboard.

But the Spanish navy will only reach Lampedusa in three days’ time and the Open Arms repeatedly said that the situation on board was desperate and some migrants were suicidal.

The passengers were sleeping jammed together on deck and sharing two toilets.

After the charity said nine had tried to swim ashore, footage showed another five people jump into the sea, although it was not immediately clear if some were lifeguards.

Italy has taken a tough line on migrant entry, saying it has borne too much responsibility for handling African migration to Europe. Interior minister Matteo Salvini says the charity-run ships have become “taxis” for people smugglers.

Dozens of migrants have been taken ashore since the ship entered Italian waters because they were said to be minors or ill.

Salvini suggested on Tuesday that the charity was exaggerating the problems on board. Of eight migrants taken ashore on Monday night for urgent medical attention, he said, only two had health problems.

‘No refugee camp of Europe’

“Spanish NGO, Spanish ship, Spanish port: The coherence and strength of Italy has paid off. We are no longer the refugee camp of Europe,” he said in a statement.

The standoff has fuelled Salvini’s campaign against migrant boats from Africa, and comes as he is trying to force Italy into snap elections.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned on Tuesday, accusing Salvini of sinking the ruling coalition for personal and political gain. 

While welcoming Spain’s latest move, Salvini’s political rival Danilo Toninelli said he hoped that Madrid would now commit to stop Open Arms’s activity in the future, meeting Italy’s wishes.

Toninelli, who controls the Coast Guard but not port access, had earlier offered to take the migrants on a Coast Guard vessel to Spain under the condition that Madrid de-register the Open Arms ship by removing its Spanish flag.

“I hope that Spain answers our appeal and commits to stopping Open Arms in the future with the means and in the ways it deems right,” the Italian minister said in a statement.

Without a flag, it would be difficult for the ship to continue running rescue missions.

Spain and five other European Union nations have offered to take the migrants. The details of the offers from Spain, France, Germany, Romania, Portugal and Luxembourg have yet to be finalised.

Reuters