Home | News    Sunday 11 July 2004

Ship with Sudanese refugees blocked outside Sicilian port

ROME, July 11, 2004 (AP) — Italian Coast Guard motorboats Sunday blocked a German aid ship from docking in Sicily after it sailed southern Mediterranean waters for three weeks in search of a haven for its passengers, including 36 Sudanese seeking asylum.

Police and Coast Guard craft had escorted the aid group Cap Anamur’s ship toward the Porto Empedocle, but then an array of Coast Guard and police boats guarded the entrance to the port, preventing the ship from docking.

The Italian Interior Ministry, which handles refugee and clandestine immigrants, said the captain had requested help, signaling "he was no longer able to guarantee the control of the ship and the command of the crew" and was concerned about the "psychic-physical" well-being of the passengers.

The ministry said doctors will examine the passengers and crew and those in need of care will be taken to local hospitals but that the boat itself would remain blocked outside the port to allow an investigation of what it called "the mysterious aspects regarding the conduct of the ship and crew."

It didn’t elaborate, but some Italian news reports have said authorities suspect that the ship might have been provoking a standoff to test the immigrant policies of European nations.

Italian Sky TG24 TV said that the captain had reported that the refugees, weak and suffering from rough seas, had threatened to jump overboard and that he decided to head toward land whether authorized or not.

Contacts were underway with German authorities to "verify aspects tied to the position of the captain and to follow up on the requests for asylum which supposedly have been made to Germany," the ministry said. The ministry said it was determined to respect human rights while "not giving any leeway to any kind of illicit behavior."

As evening arrived, bottles of water were delivered to the ship by the Coast Guard.

Speaking by phone from the ship, Elias Bierdal, a Cap Anamur spokesman, told the Associated Press in Germany, "This situation on board is not bearable any more. The boat people are mentally and physically in a very bad state." Bierdel said the boat’s not being allowed to dock "proves which face Europe really shows."

Cap Anamur, a Cologne, Germany-based group, said the Sudanese gave the boat’s captain a handwritten asylum application late Saturday and that it was sent on to the German government.

Germany’s foreign ministry declined comment.

Ambulances were standing by at the dock.

The Cap Anamur said it came across a rubber dinghy on June 20 containing 36 Sudanese - many reportedly fleeing a humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan - and a man from Sierra Leone, and picked up the passengers.

Earlier, Italian authorities had said the refugees first passed through Malta and should have applied for asylum there.

The German ship picked up the men 160 kilometers from the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa and 290 kilometers from Malta, according to Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees. He said the ship sailed through Maltese waters but didn’t stop at the island.

In Geneva on Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees urged the Italians to let the passengers disembark.

U.N. officials and human rights groups have accused the Sudanese government of backing Arab militiamen in a campaign to drive African farmers from Darfu. U.N. officials say thousands of people have been killed and more than a million forced form their homes. Sudan denies the allegations.

Thousands of illegal immigrants set out each year for Italy, which, jutting into the Mediterranean, offers relatively close shores for Africans. Many of those who slip in undetected make their way to northern Europe to find families or jobs. Many risk their lives in rickety boats.