Migration is a hot-button issue with voters in the EU and in Italy, where anti-immigrant and populist forces made huge gains in the last national election in March.
As state leaders prepared to debate issues such as asylum-seeker integration and security versus solidarity, 63 men, eight women and 34 minors from nine different countries -- including Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, and Sudan -- disembarked in the port city of Catania after a harrowing journey from Libya, where many were held captive, tortured, and robbed, according to SOS Mediterranee search-and-rescue NGO.
They were rescued Sunday from a sinking rubber dinghy off the coast of Libya by Spanish NGO ProActiva Open Arms, whose vessel, the Astral, flies a UK flag. However the 30-meter Astral is too small to hold over 100 people.
Accordingly, the Marine Rescue Coordination Center (UKMRCC) in London contacted SOS Mediterranee, which in partnership with NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs a 77-meter rescue ship, the Aquarius, which also flies a UK flag and has capacity of up to 750 people.
The Aquarius agreed to take the rescuees on board, but a protracted negotiation between Italy and the UK ensued as the two bickered over who should authorize the transfer from one vessel to the other and who should indicate the closest safe harbor.
Since both vessels fly UK flags, Italy held it was Britain's job to authorize the transfer, and then indicate a British port -- for example, Gibraltar -- to receive them. Meanwhile the "health and sanitary conditions on board the Astral continued to deteriorate," SOS Mediterranee said.
Finally on Monday night, the Rome MRCC broke the stall, authorizing the transfer. Late on Tuesday, as weather conditions were getting worse, Italy authorized the Aquarius to bring the rescuees to the Sicilian port of Catania, where the they arrived on Thursday morning.
The incident sparked condemnation from the EU, with ANSA Italian news agency citing a European Commission spokesperson as calling the situation "deplorable".
MP Giorgio Silli from Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party objected that "foreign vessels rescue migrants at sea and unload them in Italy: nothing has changed."
"We can't let our guard down," he added, according to ANSA. "A new route has opened between Algeria and Sardinia: of the people who arrived, three have been arrested because Italy had already deported them."
Silli was referring to Italy's anti-terrorism policy, which includes deporting Islamic extremists and jihadi sympathizers before they get a chance to carry out an attack.
Italy has borne the brunt of the international migrant crisis because its southernmost islands lie close to North Africa. A total of 9,789 migrants reached Italy across the Mediterranean as of May 10 this year, 84.51 percent lower compared to the same period in 2017, according to the Interior Ministry.
Although the arrivals have dropped drastically, public opinion in Italy has been inflamed by recent high-profile cases involving rapes and murders committed by rescued migrants who were given residency permits or protected status.