Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday 47 rescued migrants aboard the German charity Sea Watch vessel could finally disembark after Italy and six other countries agreed to take them in.
France, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Luxembourg have all now offered to accept some of the migrants who have been stuck on the Sea Watch 3 vessel since January 19.
The ship, which had taken shelter from bad weather off Syracuse in Sicily, was ordered to head for Catania, where the interior ministry said the minors on board could best be housed.
The four-hour journey up the coast was delayed, however, after a technical problem with the anchor winch. It was not immediately clear how long it would take to repair.
The fate of the migrants has been at the centre of a standoff between Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini — who has closed the ports to migrants and demanded Europe take its share — and Sea Watch.
The aid group on Friday filed an urgent case at the European Human Rights Court against Italy for refusing to allow its ship to dock and the mainly sub-Saharan migrants, including 15 minors, to disembark.
Rescuers said the migrants were exhausted physically and psychologically, and some bore the scars of violence suffered in crisis-hit Libya.
Salvini has warned he is considering legal action against Sea Watch’s crew, which he has accused of sailing straight for Italy rather than taking the migrants to closer ports in Libya or Tunisia.
The NGO says it tried but failed to get a response from Tripoli or Tunis.
The decision to send the ship to Catania raised red flags among migration and legal experts who said it might be impounded.
Local prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has made a name for himself as a legal thorn in the side of the NGOs that rescue migrants at sea.
In March 2018 he impounded the Open Arms ship as part of an investigation into the crew for allegedly aiding illegal migrants by refusing to hand them over to the Libyan coast guard.
The ship was released after a month following a court ruling that Libya could not be considered a safe country because of a lack of safeguards for human rights.
Sea Watch 3, which is sailing under a Dutch flag, pulled the migrants to safety as they attempted the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.
People rescued at sea have frequently been left in limbo since Italy’s anti-immigration government came to power in July.
Salvini said Wednesday he was looking into a way to ban all ships with rescued migrants from entering Italian waters.
Europe has been wrestling with divisions over how to handle the problem since the migration crisis of 2015 when more than one million people arrived on its shores, many of them fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday called for the need for “humane solutions” for migrant rescue operations and urged that migrants be allowed to disembark at the nearest port, in this case “in Italy”.
He said sharing of the care of migrants came after, and that France was committed to that principle.
In a similar case earlier this month, the EU struck a deal to share out between eight European countries nearly 50 migrants stranded aboard two ships, one of which was Sea Watch 3.
Some 113,482 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe last year, according to the UN refugee agency, which said 2,262 people lost their lives or went missing making the perilous journey.