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25th Oct 2021

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Eritrean boy first to step onto Italian soil

  • Italian health inspectors were the first to come aboard the Ocean Viking (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The 16-year old boy from Eritrea was the first to step off the Ocean Viking vessel onto Italian soil - at precisely 11:31 on Friday (9 July), in the port of Augusta, Sicily.

He had earlier in the week told EUobserver that he spent four years in Libya, including over two months in a detention centre in Zuwarah, a known smuggling hub.

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  • Eritrean boy is the first person to leave the rescue boat (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

At enormous risk, his father had collected $2,000 to set him free and onto a boat towards Europe, he said.

As he stepped onto the gangway from the boat to the dock, Italian authorities motioned him to wait.

So he remained on the metal platform straddling the boat and the port for about 15 minutes - less than a metre away from the end of an incredible journey no person should ever have to experience.

The news that the Ocean Viking had been given a port of safety late Thursday came at a critical moment.

Tensions had been mounting throughout the week. And with food rations dwindling, the SOS Mediterranée crew was doing everything possible to keep everyone calm.

But with a safe port declared, a wild joy exploded Thursday evening among the 572 rescued people on board.

By early Friday morning, the coast of Sicily had become clear, and along with it, the historic buildings of Syracuse.

The active volcano of Mount Etna also appeared just beyond the port of Augusta, where the Ocean Viking was told to disembark.

People had already started to sit in lines, knees-to-back, holding their orange tote bags as they watched the tankers and small boats pass them by.

As if in a sign of what lay ahead, the Ocean Viking was then piloted past the Geo Barents rescue ship operated by MSF and impounded by the Italian authorities after having saved over 400 people.

It then docked at a port, next to large piles of metal rubbish, and swung open its port side doors.

"Okay we can start," said SOS Mediterranee's rescue coordinator Luisa Albera at 11:24.

Italian authorities, including the police and staff from the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) were busy setting up stands.

The plan appeared four-fold.

First take photos and ID the survivors, then a Covid-19 test, registration, and a final police security check before being led elsewhere.

Families with children, minors, and those with injuries, were the first to leave.

But within the hour, the first confirmed positive Covid case had been found. The young male was moved back onto Ocean Viking where he is being kept isolated in a cooled aft container.

Others will likely follow him over the course of the next two-to-three days of disembarkation.

Out of the 572 people rescued, 183 are minors. With the exception of 27 women and girls, all are male. There are some 26 different nationalities.

The biggest is represented by Bangladesh with 151, followed by Egypt (119) and Eritrea (85). Eleven Syrians are also onboard.

Author bio

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

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