265 people rescued by the NGO Open Arms disembarked in Italy, where survivors and crew members were placed in quarantine. At least 35 people drowned within the past two weeks in the Mediterranean Sea. Rescue capacity remains low as the civil fleet continues to be blocked. The Ocean Viking rescue ship was finally released after five months.

The 265 survivors who had been rescued in the past week by the NGO Open Arms disembarked in Sicily on 5 January. While the adult passengers boarded an Italian quarantine ship moored outside the port of Porto Empedocle, about 50 minors were brought to the pier with patrol boats after testing negative for COVID-19. The crew was placed in mandatory quarantine aboard the Open Arms ship by Italian health authorities.

In the night of 31 December, 169 soaking-wet people were rescued by the Open Arms crew from a wooden boat adrift in Libya’s SAR zone following alerts by the NGO hotline Alarm Phone and Pilotes Voluntaires. Two days later, another 96 people were taken aboard the Open Arms vessel in Malta’s SAR zone. According to Alarm Phone, the Rescue Coordination Centre of Malta did not react to distress calls or in some cases hang up the phone immediately, Times of Malta reported. Further, Maltese authorities refused to provide a safe port for disembarkation of the survivors aboard the rescue vessel, among them six babies and a nine-month pregnant woman. Conditions on deck deteriorated rapidly due to bad weather, a situation which would have meant “certain death” on a boat, wrote Open Arms founder Oscar Camps on Twitter.

Search and rescue capacity continues to be scarce in the central Mediterranean and at least 15 lives were lost at sea this year already. Eight people drowned off the Libyan coast on 2 January and seven bodies, including the bodies of three children, washed ashore on an Algerian beach on 3 January. On 24 December, at least 20 people died on their way to Europe when their boat sank off the Tunisian coast. In the week of 29 December to 4 January, 162 people were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya by the so-called Libyan coast guard.

At the time of its rescue operations, the Open Arms was the only operational search and rescue ship in the central Mediterranean as other vessels remain blocked in ports due to ongoing criminal and administrative proceedings, vessel seizures, and other measures such as mandatory maintenance work. Since June 2020 alone, nine administrative proceedings were initiated against civil search and rescue ships and their crews. On 5 January, the NGO Sea-Eye, whose rescue ship Alan Kurdi has been detained for three months in Sardinia, filed a lawsuit against the seizure at the administrative court in Cagliari. According to the NGO, “The court should now decide on the legality of the detention in an urgent procedure.” On 23 December, the Regional Administrative Court of Palermo in Sicily ordered the referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union of the appeals filed by the NGO Sea-Watch against the administrative detentions affecting the rescue vessels Sea-Watch 3 and Sea-Watch 4. According to a press release by Sea-Watch, the Regional Administrative Tribunal asked the European Court to rule on the legitimacy of the application of Directive 2009/16/EC to any humanitarian ship flying a foreign flag. On December 21, following a 2-hour inspection by the Italian coastguard, the search and rescue vessel Ocean Viking was released from detention after being held in Sicily for five months. The ship, operated by the NGO SOS Mediterranee, sailed to Marseille where its crew will undergo a ten-day quarantine and prepare for resuming rescue operations.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.