Italy: Detention of ship aims to stop lifesaving rescues

Inspections of aid organizations' vessels misused to block search and rescue efforts

Chris Grodotzki/

NEW YORK/AMSTERDAM/PALERMO, September 20, 2020—Italian authorities are preventing a search and rescue ship operated by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the aid organization Sea-Watch from leaving the port of Palermo, using overzealous inspections as a pretense to prevent humanitarians from saving lives in the central Mediterranean, MSF said today.

The ship, the Sea-Watch 4, is now the fifth search and rescue vessel operated by various aid organizations to be held by Italian port authorities in the last five months—a distressing trend as refugees and migrants continue to die in the central Mediterranean.

"Legitimate maritime procedures are being manipulated and abused by Italian authorities," said Ellen van der Velden, MSF operational manager for search and rescue. "Inspections of aid organizations' vessels have become a way to block search and rescue efforts."

After launching on its first lifesaving voyage on August 15, the ship rescued 354 people in the central Mediterranean, including men, unaccompanied teenagers, families, women travelling alone, people with disabilities, pregnant mothers and young children. The MSF medical team on board provided 551 medical consultations, treating many people for fuel exposure and intoxication caused by fumes from engine fuel and the corrosive mixture of fuel and saltwater.

"The wounds we treated showed the violent reality people have escaped and the dangers of the journey they are forced to take in order to seek safety," said Barbara Deck, MSF medical coordinator onboard. "It is devastating to know that European governments are doing everything they can to prevent these vulnerable people from being provided with lifesaving care."

One teenager sustained chemical burns so severe he had to be medically evacuated. Another boy had received a blow to the head from armed men that left him deaf. Yet another patient, a father, carried scars from melted plastic as a result of abuse he suffered in Libya.

The official reasons for preventing the Sea-Watch 4 from leaving Palermo are a smokescreen for a political decision aimed at preventing humanitarians from saving the lives of people in the central Mediterranean, MSF said.

"Once a rescue ship enters an Italian port, it is subjected to a lengthy and overzealous inspection until some insignificant irregularities are found," van der Velden said. "It took 11 hours of inspection on the Sea-Watch 4 yesterday to come up with sufficient infractions to prevent the ship from sailing out of the port of Palermo. We are accused of 'systematically' saving people, criticized for having too many lifejackets on board and scrutinized over the sewage system."

The decision by the Italian authorities to detain the Sea-Watch 4 is all the more reprehensible given that the ship was instructed by the Maltese authorities to take on board more people from the search and rescue ship Louise Michel in the Maltese search and rescue region. While Italian coast guard vessels were on scene, they only evacuated 50 vulnerable people—a fraction of the more than 200 people onboard.

The Sea-Watch 4 is only at sea because of the absence of government-led search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, which is the world's deadliest sea border. MSF and other aid organizations are simply trying to fill the deadly gap left by European states.

In August, 111 people were reported dead or missing in the central Mediterranean, making it the deadliest month there so far this year.

Not only are European states failing to provide search and rescue capacity, they have co-opted the Libyan coast guard to police the central Mediterranean. Since the beginning of 2020, almost 8,000 people have been intercepted at sea and forced back to Libya—a 32-percent increase from the same period last year—despite the fact that Libya is not a safe place for migrants and refugees.

In these circumstances, European governments are disregarding their legal and moral duty to save lives, opting instead to impose abusive bureaucratic and administrative measures on yet another lifesaving ship.

"The obligation for every ship to provide assistance to boats in distress is completely disregarded," van der Velden said. "This is the Italian authorities playing dirty, attempting to incriminate and stop humanitarian organizations who are doing nothing more than trying to save lives at sea according to international maritime law. At the same time, the authorities are tearing up the rule-book on their own obligations to provide assistance to boats in distress. And this with the assent, if not full endorsement, of other European states."