Rescue vessel docks in Italy, disembarks 60 migrants

ABOARD GEO BARENTS (AP) — A humanitarian vessel on Wednesday disembarked dozens of African migrants in an Italian coastal town a week after they were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea off conflict-stricken Libya, a charity operating the vessel said.

The Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders, docked in the port town of Augusta late Tuesday after Italian authorities gave it permission to offload passengers, the charity, known by its French acronym MSF, said.

There were 60 African migrants, including six women and a seven-week-old child, on board.

Migrants said they were relieved when Barbara Deck, MSF’s project coordinator, announced that Italy had granted the vessel a port of safety. Many cheered and danced while others broke into tears when they saw the shore.

Some still have concerns however.

“We will be fully relieved after we are free,” said Kamal Mezali, a Tunisian migrant. Mezali, who lived and worked in Libya for years, said he plans to bring his two children and wife to establish a “peaceful life” in Italy.

Dr. Andolina Antonio from the Italian Health Ministry boarded the Geo Barents early Wednesday to oversee rapid COVID-19 testing for the migrants and the vessel’s crew. All tested negative for the coronavirus.

The migrants disembarked at the port where Italian police and representatives of the U.N.’s refugee agency and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC, were present.

The youngest migrants and women have been taken for a 10-day quarantine in centers at the port, while the rest would spend their quarantine period aboard a vessel operated by the IFRC.

The migrants were picked up from two separate boats on Sept. 20, a day after they embarked on the risky voyage from the Libyan coastal town of Zawiya.

It was the third rescue mission for the MSF-run Geo Barents this year. The vessel has brought 792 migrants including 43 women to Augusta since June.

MSF said it plans to embark on another rescue mission in the Central Mediterranean route after a 10-day quarantine off Augusta, starting Wednesday.

The migrants disembarked in Augusta two days after an overcrowded fishing boat with around 700 people on board docked at the island of Lampedusa in what was the single biggest migrant arrival in Italy in years.

As of Monday, 44,778 migrants had disembarked in Italy this year, with the top nationalities Tunisia, Bangladesh and Egypt. The total is nearly double the number of arrivals in the first nine months of 2020 and five times the number of 2019, according to statistics from Italy’s Interior Ministry.

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