UNHCR welcomes resolution of stand-off at sea
SICILY, Italy, Oct 26 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has welcomed the resolution of a two-week standoff at sea that had left a group of 13 asylum seekers stranded on a freighter after being denied entry to Italy and Malta.
The asylum seekers were accepted by the Italian government last Saturday - two weeks after they first set foot in Italy - and arrived in Sicily that evening. They are currently in a closed centre in Caltanissetta, Sicily, and are expected to be moved to an open asylum centre on the island later this week, once their asylum applications have been formalised and they have been issued with permits to stay.
"UNHCR welcomes the decision of the Italian government to finally receive these 13 asylum seekers, thereby fulfilling its international and European legal obligations," said the agency's spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, at a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
The refugee agency last week urged Italy or Malta to break the impasse over the asylum seekers, who had left Turkey on the German-owned freighter, Lydia Oldendorff, in early October. When the ship docked in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro on October 9, the group was taken to a police station where they said they tried to apply for asylum, but were sent back to the ship. Although some of the asylum seekers were disembarked for medical checks at the next port of call, Valetta in Malta, they were then put back on the ship, which was subsequently escorted into international waters.
For more than a week, the freighter sat moored 15 miles off Malta with the owner agreeing to delay its scheduled journey to Turkey - where the asylum seekers were believed to originate - despite heavy financial penalties for delays in cargo delivery.
UNHCR staff who boarded the boat on Saturday and accompanied it to Sicily described the living conditions on the boat as extremely poor. Prior to Italy's decision to accept the asylum seekers, tensions on board had had been growing with each passing day.
"You could see the tension drain from their faces as they heard the good news," said UNHCR's Laura Boldrini, who was on board the Lydia Oldendorff, "especially the two teenage boys, who just looked so relieved that their ordeal was finally over."
Welcoming the positive turn of events, Pagonis said, "We would also like to express our appreciation to the ship's owner, Matthias Dabelstein, and the captain and crew for the patient and responsible way in which they handled this difficult and drawn-out episode."