In the latest incident in the ongoing crack-down on civilian search and rescue operators, Italian authorities have confined Sea-Watch 4 on flimsy grounds at a time where all capacity is needed. At least 16 lives were lost as a boat capsized off Libya. A further 115 people urgently need to be rescued as bad weather approaches and 86 people were returned to Libya. After about ten days aboard, 140 survivors could finally disembark in Sicily from the Open Arm rescue ship. 125 people are about to go ashore in Sardinia from the Alan Kurdi vessel after days of waiting for a save port.

The search and rescue vessel Sea-Watch 4 was confined last Saturday by Italian port authorities in Palermo, Sicily, after an 11-hour inspection aboard. Italian authorities justified the confinement by explaining that saving lives was not in accordance with the ship’s registration and that it had too many life vests on board. Only two months earlier, German authorities – the ship sails under German flag – had confirmed that all safety requirements were met. The Sea-Watch 4 is the fifth rescue ship that has been confined since May. Also the civilian search aircraft ‘Moonbird’ was grounded by Italian authorities in Lampedusa earlier this month. The criminalisation of search and rescue organisations and the confinement of their vessels impedes rescue missions at a time when capacities are urgently needed as activity and tragedy continue at the Mediterranean Sea.

At least 16 lives were lost off the Libyan coast in a tragic shipwreck in the night of 25 September. 22 survivors were brought back to the Libyan shore by fishing vessels. 115 people are still in distress in dangerous weather conditions off the Libyan coast with no rescue in sight. On September 23, Alarm Phone was informed about a dinghy with 86 people in distress between Libya and Lampedusa and called for help immediately. 86 lives were at severe risk of drowning as the boat was deflating and water was entering. Four people jumped off the boat and it remains unclear whether they survived. After almost 18 hours, the so-called Libyan coastguard intercepted the boat, which was monitored by Sea-Watch’s civilian search aircraft ‘Seabird’.

The unwillingness of EU member states to coordinate disembarkation continued in the past week, causing precarious situations for survivors aboard rescue vessels. The case of the stranded Open Arms vessel was finally solved last Friday when Italian authorities allowed the 140 survivors to disembark onto the quarantine vessel “GNV Allegra” in Sicily. By then, the passengers had been waiting for disembarkation for about ten days under critical conditions. A similar incident developed after 133 people in distress were rescued by the crew of Sea-Eye’s ship Alan Kurdi off the Libyan coast within 12 hours last weekend. Among the survivors were 62 minors and the youngest child was only five months old. Days of uncertainty followed as the crew’s requests for entering a safe port in Italy or Malta were in vain and no country was willing to coordinate the disembarkation. Eventually, the Italian coastguard evacuated eight persons, while denying disembarkation of the remaining 125 survivors. Instead, Italy referred the crew to Germany, where the ship is registered. On Wednesday, the crew announced it was heading to France, where a crew change had initially been planned. Local politicians in Marseille reacted immediately, assuring that “if the Alan Kurdi wants to come to Marseille, we reiterate the position that we will not let anyone drown in the Mediterranean”.

However, the French government suggested Italy should assume responsibility of disembarkation as it was the nearest safe port of call. As bad weather was approaching, Italian authorities allowed the ship to anchor off Sardinia on Thursday and finally gave the permission for disembarkation in the island. After EU member states were shifting responsibility back and forth for days, 125 survivors are about to go ashore today.

The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR estimates that 495 people have died or gone missing at the Mediterranean in 2020 as of 24 September. 22,437 people have arrived to Italy by sea in the same period of time.

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Photo: ECRE

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