Home | News    Monday 12 July 2004

African immigrants allowed to land after Mediterranean ordeal

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ROME, July 12 (AFP) — Thirty-seven African would-be immigrants set foot on dry land for the first time in three weeks after Italy agreed to end their exodus and allow the ship that picked them up to dock in the Mediterranean island of Sicily.

ANSA news agency said, quoting a police chief, that the captain of the vessel, which belongs to a German group dedicated to aiding so-called "boat people", risked being charged with facilitating illegal immigration.

Carmelo Casabona, chief of police in the southern Sicilian town of Agrigento, said the vessel was docking in the nearby harbour of Porto Empedocle, and the immigrants were being taken to a reception centre in Agrigento.

The landing ends a three-week standoff during which Italy insisted that the Africans, most of whom are said to be from Sudan, should have been landed in Malta, where the German ship first made a landfall after picking them up.

European Union law says people applying for asylum in an EU country must do so at their first port of call, and immigration is a particularly volatile issue in Italy whose long coastlines have left it heavily exposed to clandestine landings.

The vessel, the Cap Anamur, is run by a German group of the same name that is dedicated to helping would-be immigrants left adrift at sea.

ANSA said its captain, Stefan Schmidt, was likely to be charged by the Italian authorities shortly after the vessel docked.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR welcomed Rome’s decision to let the Cap Anamur dock.

"We are satisfied with the decision of the Italian government to disembark the refugees," said Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman for the Italian UNHCR branch.

Boldrini said they would get treatment at the reception centre if necessary and undergo identification.

"In the meantime Germany can decide on the refugees’ requests for political asylum," she added. "They will also be able to make a similar request to Italian authorities if they wish to do so."

The Cap Anamur rescued the immigrants from a rubber dinghy floating in the Mediterranean on June 20.

However it later made a stop on the Mediterranean island state of Malta, where it dropped off a separate group of Somali migrants whom it had picked up later.

With the 37 other Africans still on board, it then headed towards Sicily, arriving off the Italian coast on July 1. The Italians refused access, saying the immigrants should have been dropped off in Malta, along with the other group.

For their part the Maltese authorities said that when the ship docked in their country, they were unaware of the other group of Africans on board.

Up until Sunday the Italian authorities had refused to allow the vessel to even enter their territorial waters, but they relented on Sunday amid reports of unrest and suffering on board.

On Sunday evening the authorities finally allowed the vessel to drop anchor off Porto Empedocle and doctors, psychologists and a lawyer were sent on to the boat.

Australia drew international criticism in August 2001 by refusing access to a Norwegian ship, the Tampa, that had rescued 433 refugees from a sinking vessel, most of them Afghans fleeing the Taliban regime.

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