LAMPEDUSA ISLAND, Italy (AP) — With the help of a local fishing boat, hundreds of migrants were transferred on Saturday to a ferry from a tiny Italian island to relieve severe overcrowding during the pandemic at a residence for asylum-seekers.
After their transfer on Saturday, they must spend 14 days in precautionary quarantine on the ferry. The vessel was one of several chartered by the Italian government, after Lampedusa’s mayor and Sicily’s governor complained about the risk of spreading COVID-19.
After so many migrants arrived this summer, some of them rescued at sea, others reaching the island's shores without help, Lampedusa’s migrant center held 2,000 people despite a capacity of less than 200.
Lampedusa Mayor Salvatore Martello said 752 migrants were transferred. The Red Cross said none of them are positive for COVID-19. The migrants will receive COVID-19 tests once they settle aboard and again at the end of their stay. After quarantine, the migrants will be taken to a residence on Sicily or the Italian mainland while their asylum applications are processed.
High winds and choppy waters meant the ferry couldn't dock at Lampedusa. So the migrants, with their possessions stuffed into backpacks or in plastic travel bags, were moved in small groups, first onto Italian coast guard or custom boats, then to the fishing boat, which served as a kind of improvised bridge, since it was tall enough to facilitate their transfer to the large ferry.
It took eight hours for the entire transfer from dockside to ferry.
Another chartered ferry is due to take more migrants from the center, which after Saturday was holding 400 people. But the strong winds delayed that next transfer operation to likely on Monday.
Early in the pandemic, the Italian government, citing health risks, closed its ports to vessels with migrants aboard. In the last few years, Italy had already increasingly denied docking permission to charity rescue boats, which save migrants from foundering boats launched by Libya-based human traffickers.
Italy has contended that the charity boats essentially aid the traffickers’ work by ensuring the migrants make it to European shores. Italy and Mediterranean island nation Malta also insist that fellow European Union countries take in many of the migrants. But so far, few nations have volunteered to do so, and the migrants languish in their residences.
Fear of COVID-19 contagion has sparked protests in some of these overcrowded facilities.
This year, more migrants reached Italy, including Lampedusa's shores, in boats setting out mainly from Tunisia that didn't need rescue than those requiring assistance in the central Mediterranean.
Most of the migrants who came ashore in Italy in recent years weren't eligible for asylum or other protection since they were trying to escape poverty, not violent conflicts or persecution. But the asylum process can take a couple of years. Even if denied asylum, migrants are rarely deported to their homelands, since Italy has such deportation agreements with just a few countries.