TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said he is allowing 40 migrants who have been kept at sea for two weeks to enter Tunisia "for humanitarian reasons."
Chahed said late Saturday he would authorize a Tunisian-flagged commercial boat that has been carrying the migrants since July 16 to dock at the southern port of Zarzis.
The migrants reportedly were stranded in the Mediterranean Sea for five days before a Maltese ship picked them up and then transferred them to the commercial boat.
Italy, Malta and France all refused to let the vessel into their ports. The Maltese government refuted claims it violated international maritime laws by directing the migrants to Tunisia, the nearest port.
Ali Hajji, the captain of the Sarost 5, told The Associated Press on Sunday that "everyone, port authorities and navy, is still waiting for the order to be given to them so that the boat can enter the port and disembark the migrants."
The Tunisian Red Crescent said it has been providing the migrants with food and medical assistance after warning of the dire sanitary conditions of the boat and the poor psychological state of the passengers, who include two pregnant women.
The group's president, Mongi Slim, says the Red Crescent will continue to assist the migrants once they reach dry land.
"We have already prepared a whole floor in the home for migrants that we manage in (the local town of) Medenine," Slim said.
The shelter currently houses more than 200 African migrants and some 46 Syrian refugees, he added.
Humanitarian groups have said the boat's passengers include citizens of Bangladesh, Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt.
The Sarost 5 has remained in waters a few kilometers from the port of Zarzis for two weeks while awaiting permission from Tunisian authorities to dock there. In recent days, Hajji called on Tunisian authorities in media interviews to help find a solution.
Chahed acknowledged fears that European officials would interpret his country's acceptance of the 40 migrants as a green light to open migrant screening centers in Tunisia, an initiative supported by the European Union to reduce the number of people setting out across the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa.
Chahed reiterated that Tunisia opposes hosting a migrant reception center.