More than 100 migrants have spent over three days stranded in the Mediterranean Sea amid a bureaucratic tussle between rescue charities and the Italian, British and Libyan maritime authorities.
Some 103 migrants – including women, 32 unaccompanied teenagers and six children – are currently aboard a British-registered rescue vessel, the Aquarius, operated by a multinational charity, SOS Mediterranee.
Rescue teams have waited for 72 hours for the Italian authorities to issue the charity with a disembarkation port.
It is the latest disagreement over how to cope with the continued attempt by migrants to reach Europe.
Speaking to Sky News from on board the Aquarius off the coast of Libya, search and rescue co-ordinator for SOS Mediterranee Nick Romaniuk said: “As we speak right now, we are altering course to the north (towards Italy) and we still do not have a port of safety.
“So the people on board now have been at sea for about three days.
“The medical team from Doctors Without Borders is taking care of them, but the confusion is that the UK does not seem to understand why the Italian authorities are not co-ordinating. The Italians are saying that the Libyan authorities took coordination after this event so it’s no longer their problem,” Mr Romaniuk said.
The migrants were initially rescued by a Spanish charity, Proactiva Open Arms, at 4am on Sunday morning.
The Italian coastguard, who have responsibility for co-ordinating rescues in the central Mediterranean, asked Open Arms to respond to reports of a dinghy in distress.
The Astral arrived at the search and rescue zone and successfully carried out the rescue.
The migrants were pulled from their overcrowded rubber dinghy onto the Open Arms rescue vessel, the Astral, which quickly became overcrowded.
Proactivia Open Arms then co-ordinated with SOS Meditaranee to facilitate the transfer of the migrants to the larger and better-equipped Aquarius vessel – a standard procedure used by the rescue charities since rescues began in 2015.
However, the Italian coastguard refused to allow the transfer to take place, claiming that the Libyan authorities had assumed responsibility for the rescue.
According to Proactiva Open Arms, the Libyans could not be contacted.
Citing bureaucratic formalities, which have not previously presented obstacles, the Italian authorities said permission had to be sought from the British authorities because both rescue vessels are registered in the United Kingdom.
Riccardo Gatti, Proactiva Open Arms’ head of mission, said: “Italy tells us that we have to speak to the nation of our flag (where boat is registered) which is the United Kingdom.
“The United Kingdom say they are available to help but do not want to co-ordinate what we have requested, which is a transfer (of the migrants) to a boat with more capacity.”
Late on Monday, the Italian authorities reversed their decision, saying they would allow the transfer because of the late hour despite not securing the agreement of the British. However they did not issue a disembarkation port.
Among the 105 on board are nationals from Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Ghana, Pakistan, Sudan, Libya, Eritrea and Senegal.
The incident demonstrates increasing complexities and conflicting views on how to cope with the continued exodus of migrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, via Libya, to Europe.
Rescue charities insist their role is simply to save lives and that returning people to Libya is not an option because of the dire security situation in the country.
However, critics say the presence of rescue charities in the Mediterranean encourages more migrants to attempt the crossing.
A controversial decision by the European Union to provide funding for the Libyan coastguard has attempted to improve their ability to carry out interceptions and rescues before migrants leave Libyan waters.
But many migrant boats, co-ordinated by smugglers, are still getting through.
A total of 22,439 migrants have reached European shores in 2018, with about 42% arriving in Italy from Libya. A further 38% arrive in Greece from Turkey, and 20% arrive in Spain from Morocco, according to then International Organisation for Migration, the UN Migration Agency.
The numbers attempting the crossing are down this year compared to the same period last year – but of those attempting, more are now dying because charities are finding it harder to operate in the region.
Conditions for migrants who are either held in smuggler-run camps in Libya or sent back there from failed attempts to reach Europe are grim.
Increasingly, European maritime co-ordination centres are shifting coordination for the rescues to Libyan authorities and instructing charities not to embark on rescues themselves.
Nick Romaniuk, from SOS Mediterranee, said: “We have a visual of a boat in distress – a rubber boat, wooden boat, very over crowded, no life jackets – and then there is this change of co-ordination where the European maritime co-ordination centre will say ‘the Libyans have assumed co-ordination’, at which point we have no more information that comes to us.”
“We are told that all vessels in the area should leave the area… so this is slowing down the rescue efforts, it’s putting people’s lives in danger and causing a lot of confusion in already a very chaotic situation,” he added.
Riccardo Magi, an Italian politician who is on board the Open Arms vessel, Astral told the Associated Press: “Something absurd and serious is happening here.
“There are over 105 people on this boat from 15 nationalities, escaping hunger and war and they are blocked, because neither Italy, nor the United Kingdom can decide to what port we can bring them, which place of safety we can be bring these people, who have been saved from a shipwreck, saved from death.”
“What is happening in the Mediterranean is very serious situation for human rights and I think that the Italian parliament should be involved in this, which it isn’t doing at this time. The Italian government has some heavy responsibilities regarding this situation.”
In a statement, the British Coastguard agency, which is not operating in the area, said: “Her Majesty’s Coastguard is aware of the incident in the Libyan search and rescue zone of the Mediterranean and have been in contact with search and rescue authorities in the area. This is not a UK coordinated incident.”
The UN says 615 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far in 2018.