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Italy agrees to take in 180 migrants rescued in Mediterranean

Those on board explode with joy at announcement their ordeal amid cramped conditions on Ocean Viking will soon be over
Migrants react on Sunday aboard Ocean Viking rescue ship after Italy announces they will be authorised to land (AFP)

Italy on Sunday authorised charity vessel Ocean Viking to transfer 180 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to a ship in Sicily for quarantine, the ship's operator and the government said.

Those on board exploded with joy at the announcement that their ordeal amid the cramped conditions on the Ocean Viking would soon be over, with migrants singing, applauding and taking selfies.

"We have received instructions from the Italian maritime authorities to disembark those on board in Porto Empedocle," a spokesman for the charity SOS Mediterranee told AFP, which has a correspondent on board.

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"We're very happy! We've come a long way, Libya was like hell and now at least we can see the end. I need to tell my family that I'm still alive," said Rabiul, 27, from Bangladesh.

Last week, a group of human rights activists and lawyers took a case to prosecutors at a court in Rome, asking them to determine whether the Italian authorities were complicit in an incident involving a migrant boat on Easter Sunday in which 12 people drowned and the 51 survivors were taken back to Libya, according to the InfoMigrants website.

The Ocean Viking is now heading for the port where the migrants will be transferred to the government-chartered ship, the Moby Zaza, for 14 days of quarantine.

"I can confirm that they're authorised to move to the Moby Zaza, likely tomorrow morning," interior ministry spokesman Dino Martirano said.

They have been on the Ocean Viking for more than a week, with fights and suicide attempts on board prompting the charity to declare a state of emergency on Friday.

The Ocean Viking, which has been in limbo in the Mediterranean south of Sicily, has been waiting for permission from Italy or Malta to offload the migrants at a safe port. 

Tensions have risen in the past week, as witnessed by an AFP reporter, with the migrants increasingly desperate to reach land. Others have become distraught at not being able to telephone their families to let them know they were safe.

A member of the crew, Ludovic, said that he had never witnessed such violence on board a rescue vessel, after a spate of fights between migrants and threats of suicide. 

The migrants, who include Pakistanis, North Africans, Eritreans, Nigerians and others, were picked up after fleeing Libya in four separate rescues by the Ocean Viking on 25 and 30 June. 

"Now, a second life is in front of us, after everything we went through in Libya. Thank you Italy for offering us a second life, and to SOS Mediteranee for saving the first," said Emmanuel, 32, from Ghana.

Migrants and NGO

The migrants include 25 children, most of whom are unaccompanied by adults, and two women, one of whom is pregnant.

At times, all the members of the SOS Mediterranee rescue team have been on deck in order to calm tense situations. Some of the threats were directed at the rescuers themselves. 

Rumours abounded among the groups of migrants, including that the NGO was in cahoots with Italian authorities, earning money each day the migrants were kept on board. 

On Thursday, two migrants threw themselves into the Mediterranean but were rescued.

More than 18,000 people have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe since 2014, according to the UN’s International Organisation 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.