Italy: MSF Rescue Ship Carrying Nearly 700 People Unable to Land in Sicily

Anna Surinyach/MSF

Italian authorities have refused to allow a search and rescue ship operated by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to disembark almost 700 people in Sicily.

On July 15 the Bourbon Argos rescued 678 people from six different boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean. A patient was also transferred for medical reasons from an Italian Coast Guard vessel. After two days at sea the ship was denied entry to Sicily due to a lack of capacity in migrant reception centers on the island.

"The vessel is completely overcrowded and the migrants are staying on the deck in a very limited space," said Alexander Buchman, MSF coordinator on the Bourbon Argos. "For the last 24 hours this has caused tensions between the people and posed serious security concerns aboard the vessel."

Despite good coordination with the Italian Coast Guard and the efforts of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC), Italian authorities did not initially authorize the Bourbon Argos to disembark in any Sicilian ports.

MSF was finally granted permission on July 16 to disembark 150 people in the port of Trapani, on Sicily’s west coast. However, MSF decided not to proceed with this partial disembarkation as it could pose serious security risks in such an overcrowded environment. Many of the people on board expressed their fear of being returned to Libya. Those rescued were from countries including Bangladesh, Cote d'Ivoire, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia.

The only people to disembark, together with relatives, were seven people requiring urgent medical attention. Two cases were particularly serious: a woman transferred from the Italian Coast Guard vessel suffering from hypertension [high blood pressure] and hypovolemia [decreased blood volume] with abdominal pain and needing urgent hospitalization; and a 12-month-old child with pneumonia, fever and dyspnea [labored breathing], whom MSF treated. The child required urgent hospitalization for further diagnosis and treatment.

"For two days, we have been trying to understand where we would be allowed to land, coordinating and working round the clock with the Italian Coast Guard, while maintaining an acceptable level of security on board," said Buchman. "This caused serious security risks aboard the vessel and forced nearly 700 people in distress to spend two entire nights on the deck in very difficult conditions."

This morning, after lengthy negotiations, the Bourbon Argos was directed to the port of Messina in eastern Sicily. This decision was changed a few hours later, however, and the ship has now been directed to Reggio Calabria, which it will not be able to reach until tomorrow morning. The vessel is currently navigating along the northern coast of Sicily—so as to keep Italian shores in sight and not feed fears among the people on board.

"The lack of preparedness of the Italian reception system is having very concrete consequences that we are seeing firsthand," said Loris De Filippi, president of MSF Italy. "We are in July, and the arrivals are not likely to stop anytime soon, so this problem has to be addressed now. The Ministry of Interior must allow disembarkation in the closest Sicilian ports in order to allow vessels to return as quickly as possible to the search and rescue zone to carry out further rescues."

Anna Surinyach/MSF