NGO asks France, Spain, Greece for help in migrant stand-off

Migrant rescue group SOS Mediterranee said Thursday it had called on the governments of France, Greece and Spain to help find a port for 234 people rescued while trying to reach Europe, after Italy and Malta failed to answer.

The NGO, whose Ocean Viking vessel responds to migrants in distress in the Mediterranean, said it was the first time it had pleaded for direct help from the three countries.

"We're not asking France to open a port, but to help us find a solution," SOS Med director Sophie Beau told AFP, saying the ship was currently south of Sicily.

Since embarking on its latest mission on October 22, the group asked Malta and Libya, the country from which most migrants hoping to reach Europe from Africa depart, to allow them into port, since they were the nearest countries to the rescue sites.

Beau said neither had responded even as weather conditions worsen, with high winds, strong waves and lower temperatures forecast for coming days.

The ship then requested aid from Italy, whose new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vowed to stop migrants from crossing to Europe from Africa.

As of Thursday, it had no official response, but the group said it was facing "a complete blockage" and an "implicit ban from entering" Italian ports.

"The atmosphere is getting increasingly tense, there is not much space," a press photographer on the Ocean Viking told AFP.

There are many unaccompanied minors and children on board, the youngest of whom is three, he said.

A ship operated by non-governmental organisation SOS Humanity is also stranded with hundreds of migrants onboard, SOS Med said.

- 'Mortal danger' -

"This is the first time we've appealed" to France, Greece and Spain for assistance in finding a port for rescued migrants, Beau said, adding that so far no country had responded.

There are currently at least three charity rescue ships active in the central Mediterranean.

The new Italian government, which campaigned on a promise to "stop arrivals", says the charity vessels sail under the flags of specific countries, which consequently have a duty to take in some of those rescued.

"If you shuttle migrants from the African coast to Italy, you are openly violating maritime law and international law," Meloni claimed in a recent interview.

"If then an NGO ship flies -- let's say -- a German flag: either Germany takes responsibility or it becomes a pirate ship," she said.

The Ocean Viking and the Doctors Without Borders ship Geo Barents both sail under the Norwegian flag, while SOS Humanity's ship sails under a German flag.

The Norwegian foreign affairs ministry said in a statement to AFP that it bore "no responsibility under human rights conventions or the law of the sea for persons taken on board private Norwegian-flagged ships in the Mediterranean".

Germany sent a diplomatic "note" to Italy in which Berlin said the charities were "making an important contribution to saving human lives in the Mediterranean", according to a statement sent to AFP by the embassy in Rome.

"Rescuing people in mortal danger is the priority. We ask the Italian government to help them as soon as possible," it added.

Since the beginning of this year, 1,765 migrants have died or gone missing attempting to cross the central Mediterranean from Africa on the most perilous migrant route in the world.

According to the Italian interior ministry, 85,991 people have arrived by sea so far this year, but only 112 of them have been taken in by other countries -- namely France and Germany.

The migrants rescued by charity vessels make up just 14 percent of arrivals over the past 12 months, according to Matteo Villa from the Institute for International Political Studies.

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