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Sick refugees taken off Italy ship as health worries grow

Italy's government allows 11 women and five men to disembark, as UN urges EU to relocate some 150 stranded passengers.

Concerns are growing over the physical and psychological health of scores of migrants and refugees stranded for a 10th day aboard an Italian coastguard ship, after 16 were reportedly taken off for medical reasons. 

The Diciotti vessel has been docked at the Sicilian port of Catania since Monday night, after Italy's far-right Interior Minister and co-Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini blocked its 150 passengers - mostly refugees from Eritrea - from disembarking in the absence of an agreement from other European member states to share the responsibility of relocation.

Eleven women and five men - two of whom are suspected to have tuberculosis - were given permission by Italian authorities to get off on Saturday, following an onboard visit by doctors requested by the health ministry, the interior ministry confirmed. 

Red Cross official Stefano Principato told reporters on the dock in Catania on Saturday that beyond medical concerns, there is also worry about the psychological well-being of the migrants who were rescued off the Maltese coast on August 16. 

Of the 190 people originally on board the Diciotti, 27 unaccompanied children and 13 others had previously been allowed to disembark. 

'Political tug-of-war'

Also on Saturday, the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, called on EU countries to "urgently offer relocation" to those confined to Diciotti and urged Italian authorities to allow disembarkation. 

"The time has come to end the back-and-forth that has seen countries competing in a race to the bottom on who can take the least responsibility for people rescued at sea," Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement.

"It is dangerous and immoral to put the lives of refugees and asylum seekers at risk while states engage in a political tug-of-war on long-term solutions," he added. 

The Diciotti is the latest in a string of cases which saw Italy, as well as Malta, refuse or delay the disembarkation of people rescued in the central Mediterranean, often after spending many months in detention in Libya.

Representatives of 12 EU member states met on Friday to seek long-term solutions to the issue of migrant rescues in the Mediterranean Sea.

But the talks ended without producing a solution for the stranded refugees and migrants, with member states failing to agree on new standard procedures for the redistribution of migrants.

Luigi di Maio, Italy's industry minister and co-deputy prime minister, later said that Rome was prepared to withhold its EU contributions if there was no solution to the migration quagmire, reiterating a threat made before Friday's talks.

Since Italy adopted a hard stance on sea rescues, stand-offs on disembarkation to Italian and Maltese ports have been resolved with ad-hoc agreements.

In July, several European countries promised to relocate 270 out of more than 400 migrants and refugees that had arrived in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo.


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