Three migrants rescued from the Mediterranean and brought to a Sicilian port but then banned from disembarking jumped into the sea in desperation on Monday, trapped in a standoff between charity ships and Italy's new hard-right government.

The men were quickly pulled from the water near the Geo Barents ship, according to operator Doctors Without Borders (MSF), as it was docked in Catania with more than 200 people on board.

It is one of a handful of charity vessels that save migrants at risk of drowning during the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe, and which are now in the crosshairs of new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government.

Shortly after the men jumped - apparently one had been trying to save the other two -a dozen other migrants standing on the deck of the ship chanted "Help Us", an AFP journalist witnessed.

Dozens of people protest in front of the Geo Barents ship demanding that migrants trapped in a standoff between charity ships and Italy's new hard-right government be let off the ship.

After days at sea, Geo Barents docked in Catania this weekend and Italian authorities allowed 357 people to disembark, including children, while refusing entry to 215 others. 

Nearby, German-flagged rescue ship Humanity 1 disembarked 144 people, but still has 35 adult male migrants onboard who were similarly refused permission to go ashore.

A government decree issued Friday said Humanity 1 was only allowed into an Italian port for the time it took to help those in "emergency conditions".

Italy's two-week-old government, led by Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party and comprising Matteo Salvini's anti-immigration League, has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on the country's shores each year.

Most come in overcrowded, leaky boats and many die as they try to reach Europe. But Italy has long complained that the EU does not share the burden of managing the problem.

Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking migrant boats when he was interior minister in 2019, said Monday the arrivals must be stopped.

"They are organised trips, increasingly dangerous, which finance weapons and drugs. They must be cut off," the now deputy prime minister tweeted.

Even as tensions rose in Catania, however, more than 500 people were rescued by Italian authorities and disembarked in Sicily, the head of the Syracuse administration told AFP.

Psychological stress

One of the 215 left onboard Geo Barents was later evacuated by ambulance after suffering "acute abdominal pain", MSF said on Monday, bringing the total to 214.

Antonio Nicita, a senator with the centre-left Democratic Party, said he had visited the ship and found "a lot of suffering".

"Many people undressed in front of us to show their scabies infection," he told AFP.

"Their situation, their level of psychological stress is very, very high," added Riccardo Gatti, the chief of search and rescue at MSF.

"The ship has its limitations in terms of medical assistance: a ship is like an ambulance and people are still in the ambulance," he said.

The charity SOS Humanity, which operates the Humanity 1 ship, said authorities decided after a "brief" medical exam that the 35 men left onboard its vessel were "healthy" and so need not disembark.

But it said no translator attended and there was no psychological evaluation, and has launched legal action against the Italian authorities.

"It is our government's obligation to provide a safe harbour... But there is a new strategy that has been put forward, the selection of people who have the right to disembark," said SOS Humanity lawyer Riccardo Campochiaro.

"If a port is secure, then it's secure for everybody," he told AFP.

The ship's captain, Joachim Ebeling, has defied the demand to leave the port, telling reporters on Monday: "I'm not going anywhere with these people onboard."

Migrant NGO SOS Humanity appeals to the Lazio Regional Administrative Court to suspend the interministerial decree preventing the ship from disembarking those remaining onboard. Video: AFP

International obligations

Amnesty International has accused Italy of "violating its international obligations", saying "the law of the sea is clear; a rescue ends when all those rescued are disembarked in a place of safety".

In a joint statement on Monday, UN agencies the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration all urged the embarkation of the migrants "without delay".

Two other migrant rescue ships have also requested a safe port. The Ocean Viking and Rise Above are still off the coast of Sicily although media reports said the latter, carrying around 90 migrants, was assigned an Italian port.

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