Italy: Refugee ship abandoned on the high seas

Migrants wait aboard the Blue Sky in the Italian port of Gallipoli after their rescue by coastguards. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Migrants wait aboard the Blue Sky in the Italian port of Gallipoli after their rescue by coastguards. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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AN Icelandic coastguard ship yesterday towed a cargo vessel to port in Italy with about 450 migrants on board who were abandoned by the crew of smugglers, authorities said.

Italian coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini said that after several hours of struggling in rough seas, rescue teams had managed to secure the Ezadeen for towing. The Icelandic ship, part of a new European patrol force to aid migrants at sea, was doing the towing.

The ship was brought into port at Corigliano Calabro in south-west Italy late last night.

Children and pregnant women were among the migrants, most of whom were believed to be Syrian, said Mr Marini. The Sierra-Leone-flagged cargo ship apparently set sail from Turkey, he said.

Earlier, Mr Marini said that a migrant had called for help, saying: “We’re without crew, we’re heading towards the Italian coast and we have no-one to steer.”

The Ezadeen is the second cargo ship full of migrants to be abandoned while still sailing this week. Days earlier, the Italian coastguard lowered personnel on to cargo vessel the Blue Sky, so they could take control of the ship, which was only a few miles from crashing in to the Italian coast.

More than 170,000 migrants were intercepted or needed rescue by Italian navy, coastguard and air force patrols last year. This apparently new technique by smugglers of abandoning a ship after setting it on a crash course complicates rescue efforts, Mr Marini told Italian state radio, “but the important thing is there are lives to be saved”.

Yesterday 35 of the migrants from the Blue Sky, believed to be mainly Syrians and Kurds, were taken to hospital, some being treated for hypothermia.

Vincent Cochetel, Europe director for the United Nations’ refugee agency the UNHCR, said the latest development was “part of an ongoing and worrying situation that can no longer be ignored by European governments”.

He urged the European Union to take “urgent” and “concerted action” to increase efforts to rescue people at sea, expressing concern over the winding down of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation.

Italy has had to deal with a massive surge in migrants, many of them from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, setting off on boats with hopes of reaching Europe.

The Blue Sky is listed as a general cargo ship, sailing under a Moldovan flag. A manager of a company hired to provide safety certification for the ship said he had withdrawn its certificate several months ago.

Greek officials were first alerted to the Blue Sky when it was near Corfu after a distress call from a man on board asking for food, water and blankets. It was reportedly heading for the port of Rijeka in Croatia from Turkey.

According to tracking website MarineTraffic, the ship abruptly changed direction south of the Greek island of Othonoi on Tuesday morning, and headed west towards Italy.