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28th Feb 2024

Italian stand-off with rescue boats, as conditions worsen

  • At least 1,337 people have gone missing on the Central Mediterranean migration route this year according to IOM’s Missing Migrants Project (Photo: SOS Humanity)
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The stand-off between humanitarian NGOs and Italy's far-right government continued to intensify on Monday (7 November), as four charity vessel ships looked to disembark several hundred people they had rescued at sea.

The stalemate came as another 500 people were said to be in distress on a large boat in Malta's search and rescue zone and in need of help.

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While their fate remains unknown as of publication, the charity ships are either unable to unload those already rescued or only allowed to release those selected by Italian authorities.

Among the ships is the SOS Mediterreanee's Ocean Viking, a Norwegian-flagged boat and the only one currently positioned in international waters off Sicily.

It has 234 people on board, some of which have now been waiting 16 days to disembark, the longest ever for the ship. Around 40 are minors travelling alone, while the youngest onboard is only three years old.

Their misery is compounded by heavy swells that can trigger bouts of sea sickness, and with rations likely to run out over the next few days.

The Ocean Viking has since appealed for help from Greece, France and Spain.

But so far only Spain has responded, with Madrid saying it cannot help because Italy is in charge of coordinating search and rescue.

When this reporter travelled with the Ocean Viking last summer, the stress of not being able to find a port of safety among the close to 600 rescued pushed people to the brink.

That time, a young Tunisian had thrown himself into the sea. Fights had also broken out as the staff did their best to keep people calm amid an uneasy uncertainness of what would happen next.

Women and children had been separated from the men.

And the smallest were kept in a make-shift kindergarten in a medical housing unit where they played, often with joy, and totally oblivious to the dramas that were unfolding around them.

Although the only vessel still in international waters, the Ocean Viking is not alone.

Legal and moral duty

The European Commission on Monday (7 November) said three other charity rescue boats managed to disembark around 500 people in Italy by late Sunday evening, with a total of close to 600 still onboard, collectively.

"There is both a legal and moral duty to save lives at sea," a European Commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels.

"And there is a legal obligation for member states under international law to do so independently from the circumstances which have led people to be in distress at sea," she said.

Whether the response will pressure Rome into allowing all those rescued to step onto Italian soil remains to be seen.

The German flagged SOS Humanity ship was allowed to disembark 144 people in Catania, Sicily, over the weekend.

But 35 were left onboard, deemed healthy by Italian officials who demand that Germany takes charge of the rest given the ship flies the German flag.

SOS Humanity is now taking legal action against the Italian government.

A recent Italian decree signed by ministers of interior Matteo Piantedosi, defence Guido Crosetti and infrastructure and mobility Matteo Salvini demands that the ships do not enter territorial waters longer than is "necessary for rescue and assistance operations for people in emergency conditions and in precarious health conditions."

Everyone else must leave Italy's territorial waters, they said, putting the 35 remaining people onboard SOS Humanity in jeopardy. SOS Humanity says the Italian decree violates international and Italian law.

So too does Luca Masera, a professor at University of Bresvia and a member of Italy's Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).

"The decision of the Italian government is in contrast with the international law of the sea, as the Italian Supreme Court has already stated in relation to the same practices used when Salvini was interior minister," said Masera.

"Unfortunately, however, the current government doesn't care about the respect for the law, and it will be necessary once again to fight for the fundamental rights of the migrants to be respected," he said.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) issued a similar statement.

"The partial and selective disembarkation, such as suggested in the Italian government's decree is heinous and can't be considered lawful according to maritime conventions," they said.

MSF also has a rescue ship, the Geo Barens, which is currently at port in Catania, Sicily. On Sunday, it was allowed to disembark over 300 people, but Italian authorities refused to allow another 215 to leave the boat.

Meanwhile, 90 people on a smaller fourth boat Rise Above run by Germany's Mission Lifeline are also facing problems.

A spokesperson said most of those onboard are women and children. At least three people have collapsed, requiring medical evacuations, she said.

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