The migrant search-and-rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 steers toward the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

— The boat, with 42 rescued migrants aboard, had been in limbo for two weeks, stuck in the Mediterranean and closed off from Europe. No country had stepped forward to accept the vessel. And Italy had pointedly ordered the boat not to enter its territory, citing a forceful new law.

But Wednesday, the German humanitarian group operating the boat said it had run out of options. The captain turned the boat toward the Italian island of Lampedusa and headed to port.

“I know what I’m risking,” the captain, Carola Rackete, said on Twitter, “but the 42 survivors I have on board are exhausted. I’m taking them to safety.”

As of late evening, the Sea-Watch 3 had stopped just outside an Italian harbor, awaiting further instructions. Rackete said in a WhatsApp message that people might be disembarked during the night, transferred in coast guard vessels and taken ashore.

Italy’s hard-line anti-migration interior minister, Matteo Salvini, vowed fines, arrests and a boat seizure — and said other European countries should take responsibility for the migrants.

“We will use every democratic means to stop this mockery of law,” Salvini said. “Italy cannot be the landing spot for anyone deciding to unload human beings.”

The Sea-Watch 3 case on Wednesday marked the clearest attempt by a rescue vessel to defy a nation’s orders.

Italy until a year ago had been the de facto landing spot for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, typically departing Libya in smugglers’ rickety boats and requiring rescue from commercial boats, charity ships or coast guard vessels.

But Italy grew frustrated with what it described as a disproportionate burden. And, under the far-right Salvini, it closed its ports to migrant rescue vessels in June 2018. That closure gained more legal muscle this month, when the country adopted a decree pledging fines of up to 50,000 euros (around $57,000) for boat captains and owners who come to Italy without authorization. The decree was criticized by the United Nations, which called sea rescue a “humanitarian imperative.”

The emerging standoff Wednesday reflects Europe’s struggle to contend with migration across the Mediterranean, even as that flow has greatly diminished from historic heights in 2015 and 2016. Over the past year, boats that have rescued migrants have regularly found themselves stranded at sea as European countries arm-wrestle over who holds responsibility.

Sometimes, European Union countries have agreed on a way to divvy up the migrants. But there have also been consequences to waiting, with accounts of dangerous food and water shortages and deteriorating health among those on board. In one instance, a migrant tried to commit suicide by jumping overboard. In another instance, in March, several migrants fearful of returning to Libya overtook their rescue boat by force and directed it toward Malta.

E.U. leaders last summer suggested the creation of centers in Europe — or even in Africa — where migrants could be screened for asylum. But no nation has been willing to host such centers.

The European Commission said in a statement that the bloc was working with members to “agree on temporary arrangements following disembarkation in the EU of persons rescued at sea.”

“Situations such as the on-going incident with Sea-Watch 3 shows that predictable and sustainable solutions are urgently needed in the Mediterranean for all those involved,” the statement said.

In one sense, Europe has succeeded in its migration goals, cutting the flow to the continent by bolstering the Libyan coast guard, which intercepts migrant dinghies and returns people to Libya. But migrants in Libya are vulnerable to rape, torture, slavery and detention, according to documentation from the United Nations and aid groups. Migration experts say it is a violation of international maritime convention to return rescued migrants to an unsafe port. The Council of Europe, a human rights body, said that the decision to outsource border control has come at a “terrible human cost.”

While some E.U. countries have been open to accepting refugees, others such as Hungary and Poland have closed their doors entirely, making it difficult for Europe to share the burden of new arrivals.

“Nobody would care about disembarkation in their country if they were absolutely assured that almost all of those people would be relocated [elsewhere],” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Salvini on Wednesday said that the responsibility for accepting the Sea-Watch migrants fell to Germany, where the group is headquartered, and to the Netherlands, because the vessel was flying a Dutch flag. He suggested that Italy in the future might refrain from registering and identifying new arrivals — a step that would undermine European rules requiring migrants to go through the asylum process in the country where they first arrive.

“They will be free to go wherever they want,” Salvini said.

After making its rescues June 12, the Sea-Watch 3 was instructed by Libya to return the migrants to Tripoli, the group’s spokesman, Ruben Neugebauer, said in a telephone interview. But the group said such an option was unsafe. Instead, it headed toward the boundary of Italian waters, zigzagging in international waters off the island of Lampedusa. On June 13, the Sea-Watch received an email from the Italian government ordering the boat not to enter the country’s territorial waters. Two days later, with the Sea-Watch still having nowhere to go, Italian authorities motored into international waters, boarded the boat in the middle of the night and told the captain to sign paperwork acknowledging the Italian orders.

“It was highly unusual,” Rackete wrote in an interview conducted via WhatsApp last week.

Rackete answered questions from The Washington Post over several days. She said she felt “outraged and also saddened that a country in central Europe has come to this state of nationalism where protecting their borders is valued more than human lives.”

She said she was trying to avoid “criminalization” and worried that if the boat headed toward Italy without authorization, it would be impounded — preventing it from carrying out future rescue missions.

But, she wrote on Friday, “if people deteriorate in terms of their psychological or physical health we would break the law and go to port immediately.”


A year of standoffs over rescued migrants

Without a comprehensive plan for what to do about migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, European countries continue to fight about what to do in each case.

June 2018

AQUARIUS (NGO)

629 migrants | A week at sea after rescue

Italy blocked the Aquarius from coming to port. Malta also refused. Spain stepped in to accept the vessel, which then spent nearly a week in heavy seas navigating to Valencia.

June 2018

LIFELINE (NGO)

230 migrants | A week at sea after rescue

Italy again closed its doors. The migrants ultimately landed in Malta and were divvied up among several other E.U. countries.

July 2018

SAROSET 5 (COMMERCIAL)

40 migrants | Two weeks at sea after rescue

The vessel docked in Tunisia after Italy, France and Malta refused entry.

August 2018

DICIOTTI (ITALIAN COAST GUARD)

177 migrants | At least five days at port

The migrants were kept aboard for five days, even after they arrived at a Sicilian port. They were allowed to disembark after several other countries, as well as the Italian Catholic Church, agreed to take them.

January 2019

SEA-WATCH AND SEA EYE (NGOs)

49 migrants | 19 days at sea after rescue

Thirty-two migrants rescued by the Sea-Watch were in limbo for nearly three weeks until Malta opened its doors as part of a redistribution deal involving nine countries. Seventeen migrants on another ship, the Sea Eye, arrived in Malta as part of the same arrangement after waiting for two weeks.

March 2019

EL HIBLU 1 (OIL TANKER)

100 migrants | One or two days at sea

The vessel intended to send the migrants back to Libya. But several migrants, fearful of returning to that country, allegedly overtook the boat by force and directed it toward Malta. A Maltese special-forces unit stormed the boat, regained control and escorted it to port, where the migrants were allowed to disembark.

April 19

SEA EYE (NGO)

64 migrants | 10 days at sea

Italy and Malta both denied the vessel port entry; the migrants ultimately disembarked in Malta with military patrol boats, to be distributed among four countries.

June 2019

MARIDIVE 601 (COMMERCIAL)

75 migrants | Three weeks

An Egyptian tugboat that rescued migrants was stranded at sea without port access until Tunisia opened its doors.

June 2019

SEA-WATCH (NGO)

43 migrants | Two weeks and counting

The vessel rescued the migrants, headed toward Italy and was ordered not to enter Italian territorial waters. The boat remained in international waters until its 14th day at sea with the rescued migrants, when the captain decided to defy Italian orders and head toward the island of Lampedusa.