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21st Feb 2024

Ocean Viking mentally preps for another Italian standoff

  • The Libyans often torch wooden boats used by migrants to escape the country (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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The Ocean Viking operated by SOS Mediterranee is mentally preparing for a new lengthy standoff with Italy's right wing government.

On Monday (14 November), Louise Guillaumat, its deputy director of operations, told EUobserver that the ship will soon be heading out to sea.

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"There is no specific additional action that we could prepare for except for the team on board to be mentally prepared to face a long stand off," she said.

With the new mission comes the prospect of Italy, under the premiership of Giorgia Meloni, ignoring requests to allow the ship to disembark.

The latest row saw Rome ignoring 46 such requests, forcing the Ocean Viking to instead dock in the French port city of Toulon on 11 November.

The 234 people onboard had been rescued between October 22 and 26.

Critics say Italy broke international maritime law by refusing them a safe port, a charged denied by Meloni's government.

Many of those saved were in Malta's search and rescue zone. But Malta refuses to help given its small size and limited facilities. Libya is not considered safe, according to the UN refugee agency. And Tunisia has no asylum framework.

This leaves Italy as the closest safe refuge for NGO boats.

Yet the stand off between the Ocean Viking and Italy lasted three weeks, the longest ever for the charity vessel. For the crew and the some 234 people they had rescued, the waiting had exasperated already tough conditions.

Bad weather and Italian decrees

Italy had also issued decrees, including to Humanity1 rescue boat, which had entered Italian waters.

The decree bans NGO vessels from territorial waters but makes an exception for people facing medical emergencies or considered vulnerable.

This "selective disembarkation" triggered a lawsuit by SOS Humanity, which operates Humanity1.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Viking remained in international waters off of Sicily.

Unlike the three other NGO vessels in the area, Guillaumat said they did not enter Italian territorial waters for a mix of reasons.

The other boats had initially entered Italian territorial waters to seek shelter from the bad weather, she said.

Asked why the Ocean Viking didn't do the same, Guillaumat said there was no added value in moving the ship.

"According to our captain, the situation would not be better for our ship entering inside territorial waters," she said.

"We were just waiting for instructions as always and we never received such instructions," she said.

After some two weeks near Italy, the Ocean Viking left for France without any formal invitation from the French authorities.

"No we were not. It was really the last chance decision," she said, when asked if they had been invited by France. France eventually signed a port of safety for the Ocean Viking.

But Guillaumat said the decision had been made as a last ditch emergency effort. "At some point, we just saw, the moment we had to make this decision," she said.

"There were no options to get a port of safety and to disembark according to humanitarian imperatives in Italy," she said.

Paris and Rome dispute

Gérald Darmanin, France's interior minister, said the Toulon disembarkation was an exceptional measure and blamed Italy for reneging on its international commitments.

The affair triggered a dispute between Paris and Rome, which has since been discussed at an EU foreign affairs meeting in Brussels, also on Monday.

Italy's foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, and ex-president of the European Parliament, says there needs to be "European solution" to the issue.

Tajani had also floated the idea of creating camps in Libya, a country wrecked by war and where people are shuffled into deadly militia-run detention centres.

The vast majority of migrants reaching Italy by sea arrive without the help of NGO rescue boats, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

They say that of the 88,000 people who arrived by sea to Italy so far this year, around 15 percent were brought by NGOs. The remainder were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and other Italian state-led rescue ships or arrived on their own.

They also say that at least 1,337 deaths have been documented on the Central Mediterranean route since the start of the year.

EU Commission cannot stop Italy banning rescue boats

The European Commission says it is powerless to stop Italy from banning charity rescue boats entering its territorial waters. The statement follows moves by the new government under Georgia Meloni to further crack down on the Mediterranean Sea rescues.

Paris-Rome spat exposes EU 'solidarity' rift on asylum

The European Commission says solidarity on migration remains — despite Paris refusing to relocate some 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy under a French EU presidency-inspired proposal to distribute thousands of people across member states.

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