Migrants stand on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti, moored at the Catania harbor, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli

Update: Interior Minister Matteo Salvini authorized the disembarkation of 27 unaccompanied children on the night of August 22. All others remain on board.

Engineered hysteria over boat migration across the Mediterranean – at its lowest in years – has reached a whole new level of absurdity. The Italian government is holding its own coast guard and 177 rescued persons hostage in a cynical gambit to force other European Union countries to take the migrants and asylum seekers.

The Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti, which holds the 177 rescued migrants, finally received permission to dock on Monday, coming into port in Catania, Sicily after five days of uncertainty at sea. But the ship was forbidden from disembarking anyone on board. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigrant deputy prime minister and interior minister, had previously threatened to return the rescued migrants to Libya from where they departed, and is now insisting on pledges from European countries to take all of them before allowing them to leave the ship.

This is the latest in a despicable string of cases this summer in which Italy and Malta refused or delayed disembarkation of rescued migrants and asylum seekers from nongovernmental, commercial, and military ships. Ad hoc agreements to distribute people to different EU countries have been reached each time.

The majority of the 177 people on the Diciotti are reportedly from Eritrea and Somalia, including at least 28 unaccompanied children. They have likely spent many months if not years in captivity and abuse in Libya.

Keeping them on board the ship is inhumane. It unjustifiably delays their access to medical and psychological attention and thwarts their right to seek asylum. It may also, as suggested by Italy’s own independent guarantor of the rights of detained people, constitute unlawful deprivation of their liberty in violation of Italy’s Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Italian government should immediately allow everyone on board the Diciotti to disembark and sort out any transfers to other countries later. And EU countries should urgently agree on a predictable plan to share responsibility for people rescued at sea to avoid repetition of this disgraceful episode.