A rescue ship carrying 356 people, mostly Africans, rescued in the Mediterranean off Libya has spent two weeks at sea without being assigned a safe port to offload its traumatised passengers — a situation one charity worker decried as "the new normal" as Europe fails to devise a systematic response.

"It is a complete shame. It is inhumane," Jay Berger, project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders on the ship, the Ocean Viking, said by satellite phone yesterday. "There needs to be concrete action. This is not how people should be treated."

The Ocean Viking conducted four rescues off Libya from August 9 to 12, and is in its 14th day without being permitted to disembark the rescued people in a safe harbour, as dictated by maritime law. The ship, with a stated capacity of 200 passengers, has been sailing between the Italian island of Linosa and Malta, staying out of sight of land as that would only excite the rescued people.

Berger said that the situation on board remains "manageable", but anxiety is growing about what is going to happen. The passengers are becoming increasingly concerned that they will be taken back to Libya, where many suffered torture and detention, he said.

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"The longer we are at sea, the harder it is for them to trust us," he said. "Already two weeks is way too long."

So far, there have been no medical emergencies or outbreaks of tension, as was the case on the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms, which disembarked on Wednesday on the Italian island of Lampedusa after a prosecutor ordered the vessel seized as part of investigations into possible charges of kidnapping, failure to provide aid and a safe port.

Unlike the Ocean Viking, the Open Arms had been permitted to enter Italian waters after an administrative court ruled that it could access port. An appeal to that ruling is pending.

The Italian Interior Ministry said that of the 163 migrants that were on board the Open Arms, 110 would be moved to five EU countries: 40 to France, 40 to Germany, 15 to Spain, 10 to Portugal, and between three and five to Luxembourg.

On board the Ocean Viking, Berger emphasised that while the ship awaits port, there are no humanitarian rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean Sea, where some 580 people are believed to have died this year. While that number is lower than last year's death toll of 1130 from January through August, the rate of deaths per estimated crossing is higher, according to the IOM.

- AP