Aid group’s rescue ship held ‘indefinitely’ in Italy, leaving migrants with increasingly few options

migrants being rescued by the Ocean Viking
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Aid group SOS Mediterranee has accused Italy of hampering its work. Italian authorities ordered SOS Mediterranee’s migrant rescue ship Ocean Viking to be held “for an indefinite period” in port.

The aid group said that officials had cited:

a very small number of technical and administrative shortcomings.

The NGO’s co-founder and director Sophie Beau told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that having the ship blocked at port:

prevents us from carrying out rescue operations.

Beau explained that Italian authorities were creating a “very harmful” environment for civil society groups looking to aid migrants.

Since last year, Italy’s government has been led by far-right prime minister Georgia Meloni. Her coalition includes Matteo Salvini of the anti-Migrant League party. They have continually cracked down on help for migrants.

Read on...

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‘Zealous, redundant and repetitive’

After disembarking 57 people rescued off the Libyan coast on 7 July, Ocean Viking was subject to a seven-hour inspection by port authorities on 11 July.

The Italian coastguard did not immediately respond to AFP‘s questions about the inspection. But Beau said that the problem was related to the Ocean Viking’s 14 life rafts. She said:

The inspectors asked us whether there were 14 qualified people to deploy the rafts in case the ship had to be abandoned.

We don’t understand why this point had never been raised at the inspections carried out until now.

Indeed, Beau said that they had been subject to seven inspections over the past four years alone. She explained that these inspections are excessive:

We have faced really extremely frequent inspections, extremely zealous, redundant and repetitive.

While the Ocean Viking is stuck in port, “there is an enormous need for rescue provision, a shocking lack of ships in the zone” where migrants cross the central Mediterranean, Beau said.

Ocean Viking points to rising numbers of deaths among migrants attempting the crossing to EU territory since the start of 2023.

Number of aids organisations speak out

On 13 July, five charities that assist migrants said they had complained to the European Commission about a new Italian law forcing rescue ships in the Mediterranean to dock in ports assigned to them. Often, they’re told to dock some distance away, which requires days of extra sailing.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Oxfam Italia, SOS Humanity, Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration and EMERGENCY have all argued that the legislation breaks EU and international laws regarding sea rescues.

Doctors Without Borders said:

NGO vessels engaged in search and rescue activities have been subjected to repeated inspections by Port State Control officers and prolonged administrative detentions, even in the absence of clear and proven dangers to persons, property or the environment.

Italy also passed a law in February limiting charity-run ships carrying out more than one sea rescue at a time and forcing them to dock at an assigned port.

An SOS Humanity captain said:

The 199 people we recently rescued, including pregnant women and babies, were forced to travel around 1,300 km to disembark in Italy, although other Italian ports were much closer.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says more than 27,600 people have disappeared in the Mediterranean since 2014. A resolution from EU lawmakers said that:

For 2023, the figure has already reached 1,875 people dead or missing.

Featured image via YouTube screenshot/FRANCE 24 English

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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