GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - The U.N. refugee agency is repeating its appeal to European nations to allow the immediate disembarkation of people stranded aboard the rescue vessel Open Arms, as conditions on the ship rapidly deteriorate. In a rare concession, Italy's right wing interior minister, Matteo Salvini, allowed 27 unaccompanied minors to be evacuated from the vessel in the port of Lampedusa Saturday. A further nine were allowed to leave Monday evening for urgent medical reasons.
But that leaves 98 refugees and migrants trapped on board the Spanish NGO rescue vessel, Open Arms.
U.N. refugee spokesman Andrej Mahecic said conditions have become intolerable on the ship, which has been stranded at sea for 18 days.
"For those who are on board, there remains significant humanitarian needs, particularly psycho-social support that is needed, that cannot be met on the vessel itself. Many of the rescued people have suffered horrific abuses during many months in Libya," he said.
Mahecic said six European Union countries say they are willing to receive the rescued passengers after disembarkation. So, this, he said, should be a simple matter of getting the largely African refugees and migrants safely to dry land.
"The political debate in our view should be focused on what is motivating people to move, the war in Libya, the need for asylum and saving lives at sea. Rescued people should not be used as hostages for the purpose of political point scoring," said the spokesman.
However, Salvini, who considers his anti-immigrant stance a winning political issue, refuses to budge from his position and allow the Open Arms to dock.
In the meantime, a similar drama is unfolding aboard the Ocean Viking, a rescue vessel run by the charity Doctors Without Borders. It has been stranded at sea since August 9, when it rescued 356 people, many from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan.
Mahecic said it is likely conditions aboard that vessel are similar to those on the Open Arms.