Dozens of people have jumped from an NGO migrant rescue ship in an attempt to reach Sicily, after the crew waited 10 days for authorisation to disembark their passengers.
The Spanish NGO Open Arms said 124 of the 273 refugees and migrants on its Proactiva Open Arms boat, leaped into the water during the largest-known incident of its kind.
They were rescued by the Italian coastguard and brought to safety in the port of Palermo.
“It’s the first time so many migrants dived into the water,” said Riccardo Gatti, the head of mission for Open Arms. “On Thursday, 76 entered the water, and today another 48. These gestures are the culmination of frustration and desperation.
“Men and women who have experienced trauma and unimaginable oppression are then placed under increasing stress during these long delays at sea, which can last days, even weeks.”
Proactiva Open Arms had originally rescued people from various boats between 8 and 10 September. All had set off for Europe from Libya, where aid agencies said people faced torture and abuse.
According to Open Arms and the Italian NGO Emergency, many of those onboard had burn marks and other signs of violence on their bodies. Almost all bear “the symptoms of post-traumatic stress due to the abuse they experienced in their countries of origin and during the journey. Not to mention as a result of the harrowing sea crossing,” the NGO said.
Gatti said the refusal of Italian authorities to accept the refugees and migrants had “raised their stress to unbearable proportions, to the point that diving into the sea – often without knowing how to swim – is seen as a way to alleviate their suffering.
“When those who remained aboard realise that the others in the water were rescued, then of course some of them jump in as an act of emulation so that they too, can make it to shore.”
Three days ago, Open Arms received indications from the Italian authorities that the boat should head towards Palermo. It was not given authorisation to disembark, however. Standoffs between NGO ships and European authorities that refuse to allow the passengers to come ashore can last weeks and cause health emergencies on the ships.
On 13 September, 27 people were left stranded onboard a tanker for 38 days after finally being allowed to disembark in Sicily, in what has been described as the longest standoff in European maritime history.
During the wait, three people were rescued off the coast of Malta after they jumped overboard out of desperation. Others onboard began to self-harm.
All passengers onboard the Proactiva Open Arms, including those who made it ashore after jumping into the sea, will be transferred to a ferry boat. They will then be placed under quarantine for 14 days.
Last May, a young Tunisian man in quarantine on a ferry boat off the coast of Agrigento in Sicily died in rough seas after jumping into the water from a height of 15 metres. According to an investigation, the man attempted to flee because he feared being sent back home if he made it to land.