More than 350 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean have been transferred to a quarantine vessel off Sicily, aid workers said on Wednesday.
The 353 migrants, who had been on board the Sea-Watch 4, included those rescued last week by the Louise Michel, a 30-metre boat sponsored by the mysterious British street artist Banksy.
“The first people have boarded the quarantine vessel and the operation is ongoing,” Mattea Weihe, spokeswoman for the Sea-Watch humanitarian organisation, told AFP. Many had been on board under severely cramped conditions for the past 12 days, Weihe added.
The migrants are due to land in Palermo, Sea-Watch said, after quarantine checks.
Meanwhile, a migrant mother who tested positive for Covid-19 and her newborn baby were undergoing treatment at Palermo’s Cervello hospital, the Italian news agency ANSA said.
The woman went into labour at the crowded migrant holding centre on the southern island of Lampedusa on Tuesday, and authorities decided it would be better to fly her to Palermo. However, she gave birth as the helicopter neared the city of Agrigento, about 120 km (75 miles) south of the city.
The transfers come as the latest arrivals fuelled anger from local officials in Lampedusa and Sicily. Italy has been struggling in recent months with daily arrivals of hundreds of migrants from North Africa, a task complicated by security measures imposed under the coronavirus crisis.
Sicily’s regional governor, the right-leaning Nello Musumeci, and the Lampedusa mayor, Totò Martello, met the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, in Rome late on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
The meeting came after an Italian court last week struck down a decree issued by Musumeci ordering the closure of migrant centres on Sicily to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“Every day there is tension in Lampedusa, the economy is crumbling, the images is of an island at war,” Martello told reporters after the discussions with Conte.
According to sources at the meeting, Conte promised two more boats, within 48 hours, to evacuate migrants from Lampedusa.
He also said that the payment of taxes by the island would be suspended. “The economic suffering, and not just that, deserves a strong response from the state,” he said, according to the sources.
“We are aware of the difficulties you are living under and the need to study together the most effective solutions to these problems,” the prime minister was quoted as saying.
Beween 1 August last year and 31 July this year, over 21,600 migrants arrived on Italy’s shores, compared with nearly 8,700 landings the year before, official data shows.
Despite the sharp rise, migrant arrivals are still far below the numbers recorded in recent years, especially before Rome signed a deal with Libya for its coastguard to prevent migrant departures.