Italy: Port authorities detain MSF's search and rescue ship

Geo Barents detention

Pablo Garrigos/MSF

AUGUSTA, Italy, July 4, 2021—A ship chartered by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been detained by Italian port authorities on administrative grounds, delaying its return to lifesaving search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean, the organization said today, calling for its swift release.

Following a 14-hour inspection in Augusta port, Sicily, on July 2, the Geo Barents was held after 22 deficiencies were identified, 10 of which were allegedly grounds for the ship to be detained. While MSF is ready to make all necessary adjustments, it is clear that the inspection represents an opportunity for authorities to pursue political objectives under the guise of administrative procedures, MSF said. MSF calls upon the Italian authorities to swiftly facilitate the release of its search and rescue ship, to enable its return to sea as soon as possible.

"While port state controls are legitimate maritime procedures, developed to ensure the safety of navigation at sea, these inspections have been instrumentalized by state authorities to target NGO [nongovernmental organization] ships in a discriminatory way," said Duccio Staderini, MSF search and rescue representative. "We can therefore only conclude that this is politically motivated. Inspections of NGO vessels in Italian ports are long and thorough, aiming at finding irregularities in order to prevent the ship from returning to sea to save lives. We are faced with a crushing reality: while humanitarian NGO vessels are detained, lives continue to be needlessly lost in the Mediterranean."

MSF launched the Geo Barents in May, fully equipped and certified to perform search and rescue activities, while adhering to the current rules and regulations put in place by the relevant maritime authorities. The ship performed a series of rescues from June 10 to 12, rescuing 410 people who all showed signs of extreme exhaustion and various vulnerabilities. Among them were 16 women, of whom six were travelling alone and one was pregnant, as well as 101 unaccompanied children. Most people were from war-torn countries, including Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Mali.

Now, Geo Barents has become the latest in a series of humanitarian ships to be immobilized by Italian port authorities, in a form of administrative harassment. Since 2019, the Italian authorities have conducted 16 Port State Controls on humanitarian rescue vessels, leading to administrative detention on 13 occasions. This represents a total of 1,078 days on which a ship was prevented from saving lives.

Deaths at sea continue in the absence of search and rescue activities, with multiple recent shipwrecks, and the bodies of women and children washing up on Libyan shores. Since the beginning of 2021, at least 721 people have been confirmed dead or missing attempting to cross the central Mediterranean.

The Geo Barents is only at sea because of the shameful absence of state-led search and rescue efforts at the world's deadliest sea border, MSF said. European states have propped up the dangerous Libyan Coast Guard while they block NGO efforts to fill the deadly gap left by European states. MSF will take all necessary action to return to sea as soon as possible to save lives.

European states and institutions must end their political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard as long as it intercepts and forcibly returns people to Libya. EU member states must also urgently investigate allegations of pushbacks or other unlawful returns.

At present the Ocean Viking, run by the organization SOS Mediterranee, is the only rescue ship operational in the central Mediterranean. Five NGO search and rescue vessels (Sea-Watch 4, Sea-Watch 3, Sea-Eye 4, Louise Michel and Geo Barents) are all currently under administrative detention and blocked from resuming their life-saving activities. 

Not only are European states failing to carry out search and rescue operations, they are deliberately supporting a system of mass forced returns to Libya and collaborating with the Libyan Coast Guard, which recently demonstrated its violent behavior by shooting at a boat in distress with people on board. Since the beginning of 2021, more than 14,751 refugees and migrants have been intercepted at sea and forced back to Libya—despite the fact that Libya is not place of safety for the purpose of disembarking people rescued at sea, according to international and maritime law.