Humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee launched an alert on Friday that its rescue boat carrying 180 migrants was in crisis and needed to disembark immediately due to deteriorating conditions and violence erupting on board.
The charity group said it had called a state of emergency for its Ocean Viking vessel, saying the safety of the migrants and crew could no longer be guaranteed.
The boat, which has been in limbo in the Mediterranean south of Sicily, has been waiting for over a week for permission from Italy or Malta to offload the migrants at one of their ports.
Tensions have risen in the past week, as witnessed by an AFP reporter aboard the boat, as migrants have become increasingly desperate to reach land. Others have become distraught not being able to telephone their families to let them know they were safe.
A member of the crew, Ludovic, told AFP he had never witnessed such violence on board a boat, after a spate of fights between migrants and threats of suicide.
“I don’t feel safe,” Ludovic said. “We have to find a port now, it’s a question of safety.”
– Fights break out –
SOS Mediterranee said in a statement it was not safe to keep migrants on a boat after they had “endured a near-death experience on an unseaworthy dinghy in distress.”
“After seven requests for a Place of Safety to the relevant maritime authorities within the past week and six suicide attempts by survivors within 24 hours, the Ocean Viking has declared a State of Emergency…” the group wrote.
Early on Friday, a migrant tried to hang himself, the group said. Others exhibit “signs of extreme mental fatigue, depression and acute agitation which has erupted into several physical fights among the survivors on deck,” SOS Mediterranee said.
Meanwhile, two migrants had begun a hunger strike, said the group.
On Friday afternoon, the charity asked for a medical evacuation for 44 Tunisians, Moroccans and Egyptians showing signs of “acute psychological distress” who were threatening to harm themselves and others.
On Thursday, two migrants threw themselves into the Mediterranean, but were rescued.
The charity group said it had received a negative response from Italy and Malta after its first request for a port, and no replies to its six subsequent requests.
More than 100,000 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean last year with more than 1,200 dying in the attempt, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The arrival of summer and more favourable conditions at sea may lead to an increase of attempts to cross the Mediterranean with the hope of arriving in Europe.