Tuesday

9th Aug 2022

On board with SOS Méditerranée

EU talks migration over dinner, as NGO rescue-ship sets sail

  • Ocean Viking rescue ship is preparing to set sail from Marseille (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

As EU heads of state and government gather in Brussels to discuss migration, the Ocean Viking search and rescue vessel is preparing to set sail from the French port of Marseille.

The Norwegian-flagged boat is chartered by SOS Méditerranée, a humanitarian organisation that has rescued close to 33,000 people over the past few years.

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  • EUobserver's journalist will be on board the Ocean Viking over the coming weeks (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Over that same period, EU member states have been unable to muster a coordinated response amid political wrangling over migration and asylum reforms.

"There is a failure of solidarity among European states," said Sophie Beau, who co-founded SOS Méditerranée in 2015.

"It is really an emergency, the summer is coming, we know it every year," she said on Wednesday (23 June) in a telephone call.

Thousands of people have since perished and many more likely to have drowned without a trace in a sea that has since become the world's deadliest migratory route.

On Thursday, EU leaders are set to claim that saving lives is a priority in a broader discussion on migration. Those talks are set to kick off late afternoon and then possibly roll over into dinner at 8PM.

They will also reinforce their shared objective to boost relations with countries of origin and transit, including renewed efforts to seal a new migrant-swap deal with Turkey.

"The angle is on the external dimension of migration," a senior EU diplomat told reporters in Brussels.

German Bundestag president Wolfgang Schäuble drew a more concise picture.

"We will only make progress if we cooperate with regimes," he had told the European Parliament earlier this month.

"There are moral costs, ladies and gentlemen, that we will have to assume," he added.

Among those costs is Libya and its notorious detention centres, where up to 5,000 migrants and refugees are essentially being held hostage until they can pay their way out.

Recent reports of rapes and sexual abuse of minors have surfaced at the government run Shara al-Zawiya detention centre in Tripoli.

One 15 year old girl was rushed to the hospital after attempting suicide.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) has also pulled out of two Tripoli-based detention centres, Mabani and Abu Salim.

The head of MSF Libya, Beatrice Lau, said the persistent levels of violence against everyone "has reached a level that we are no longer able to accept."

The new unity government is also making life difficult for other humanitarian aid workers, including the EU-funded UN Refugee Agency.

But for the Ocean Viking and its 30-odd crew of experienced seafarers and rescuers, the mission ahead is clear.

"Nothing has improved these last six years unfortunately and so our objective today is to still save lives," said Beau.

Equipment and food is currently being loaded onto the boat as it prepares to sail towards international waters off Libya.

The race is against time and a reinforced EU trained and financed Libyan Coast Guard that has intercepted some 14,000 people so far this year, often with the help of Turkey.

At the shipyard in Marseille, the 70-metre Ocean Viking was dwarfed by the surrounding luxury cruise liners on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, on board, a hospital unit, medical staff, and a search and rescue team are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

In April, they witnessed the tragic aftermath of a drowning that had killed 130.

Those lucky enough to be found alive will be brought onboard and cared for. Women and children will be placed in a shared facility and separated from men.

Behind one of the shelters for women is a row of sinks for washing and steel mirrors.

"It can be quite emotional," said Claire Juchat of SOS Méditerranée, motioning to the mirrors.

"Some haven't seen themselves in a long time," she said, suggesting that they may have been kept captive in Libya.

Author bio

Nikolaj Nielsen, an EUobserver journalist, will be embedded on the Ocean Viking for the coming weeks, reporting exclusively from the boat on the Mediterranean migration route.

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The EU has trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard. Those intercepted are then returned. Now Turkey has taken the lead, raising the stakes of possible leverage over the European Union as Ankara takes control of the route.

EU rejects UN blame for migrant sea deaths

Last week, the UN high commissioner for human rights said the EU and its member states are partly responsible for making the central Mediterranean more dangerous for asylum-seeker hopefuls. The EU rejects that - despite evidence suggesting otherwise.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Migrant rescue ship preparing for the worst

SOS Mediterranee's rescue coordinator Luisa Albera describes the events surrounding the tragic loss of 130 people in late April.

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Somewhere east of Sardinia in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Ocean Viking crew ran drills on their two primary rescue speed boats. The teams are preparing for the real rescues, which may take place before the end of the week.

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Ocean Viking leaves French port of Marseille

The Ocean Viking chartered by SOS Mediterranee left the French port of Marseille on Sunday (27 June), after almost five days of onboard preparation and sevens days of quarantine.

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Last weekend, Italy's Lampedusa island was again making headlines for being overrun with migrants. But, paradoxically, the crisis was more visible from TV news bulletins and social media than from the ground.

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