Child migrants need safe port as tensions rise: rescue charities

Children rescued in the Mediterranean must be allowed to disembark in a safe port, charities said Saturday, as a stand-off with Italy over migrant arrivals intensified.

There are four humanitarian ships carrying rescued migrants currently requesting permission to dock safely in Italy as conditions at sea worsen in bad weather.

"We have a lot of babies on board, as well as women with children. We urgently need to be assigned a port," Hermione Poschmann from German charity Mission Lifeline, which runs the Rise Above rescue vessel, told AFP.

Italy's new far-right government, which was sworn in last month, has vowed to crack down on boat migrants fleeing North Africa for Europe.

The German vessel Rise Above, which rescued 95 people in three operations Thursday, is carrying 42 minors including eight babies, the smallest of which are just seven and 10-months old.

"The situation will continue to worsen due to the enormous psychological strain on the people on board," mission head Clemens Ledwa said.

Between them the four vessels -- the Rise Above, Humanity 1, Ocean Viking and Geo Barents -- are carrying over 1,000 people saved in the Mediterranean.

Italy said Friday it would allow Humanity 1, run by German charity SOS Humanity and carrying 179 migrants, into its national waters so that Italian authorities could carry out medical checks.

- 'Undoubtedly illegal' -

Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said Italy would take in minors and women who were pregnant or who had young children, but the ship would then have to "remove" the remaining migrants from Italian territorial waters.

But Lukas Kaldenhoff from SOS Humanity said the charity had received "no communication whatsoever from the Italian authorities" about health checks, nor had it been assigned a port.

The Humanity 1 entered Italian waters overnight to seek shelter.

"Over 100 of the 179 people on board are minors, including a seven-month old baby", Kaldenhoff told AFP.

Mirka Schafer, the charity's advocacy officer, said in a statement that the government's decision to only take some people was "undoubtedly illegal".

"The survivors fled Libya, where they were exposed to human rights violations such as torture. As refugees, they are clearly in a vulnerable state, some of them visibly traumatised.

"Those rescued must be allowed to go ashore immediately, where their medical and psychological care can be ensured, and they can exercise their right to apply for international protection," she added.

The ship was off the coast of Catania in Sicily on Saturday, as was Rise Above, which had also sought shelter, according to Poschmann.

The 25-metres long vessel "is a small, fast responder, not made for a long stand-off", Poschmann said.

The ship usually transfers those it rescues to the bigger charity vessels, but they have no space for them.

A photographer on the Ocean Viking, run by SOS Mediteranee, told AFP conditions at sea "are worsening, and we are expecting more rain".

"Those on board are not well because they are sea-sick, children included", he said, adding that there were 57 minors among the 234 migrants.

The Geo Barrents, run by Doctors Without Borders and currently carrying 572 rescued people, said Saturday it had also entered Italian waters to seek shelter "after requesting and receiving permission from the authorities".

"We have been waiting for more than 10 days for a safe landing place," mission head Juan Matias Gil said.