Dozens of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean have tested positive for the new coronavirus while held in a quarantine ship off the southern Italian coast, Sicily's regional leader Nello Musumeci said on Wednesday.
In April Italy banned migrant rescue ships from docking in its ports until July 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It now transfers all those saved at sea onto large ferries which must wait off its coast.
After saving more than 200 people stranded at sea last week, the Sea-Watch 3 charity boat arrived on Sunday in the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle.
The mainly African passengers were immediately moved to the Italian ferry Moby Zaza, where 28 of them, or 13%, tested positive.
"In April we asked the central government to place the migrants under quarantine to prevent infections.. Those who accused us of racism will now realise that we were right," Musumeci said on Facebook.
Official data suggests Africa has been less badly affected by COVID-19 than other parts of the world. However, Libyan health authorities reported a surge in cases in June, blaming the repatriations of nationals from abroad.
Sea-Watch, a German NGO, said in a statement it had informed authorities of a suspicious case before disembarking the migrants. The person was later found positive after being hospitalised in the city of Caltanissetta.
The interior ministry said all the positive or suspect cases had been isolated on the Moby Zaza to prevent further infections.
The charity has appealed to the German government to support Italy in dealing with the situation and has requested a coronavirus test for the 22 members of its crew, who are currently under quarantine aboard their vessel.
Migrant arrivals fell in 2019 following a crackdown in Libya against people smugglers, but they have picked up again this year, with 6,195 landings to date, compared to 2,445 in the same period of 2019.