A new stand-off is developing as Maltese authorities refuse to allow 278 survivors aboard the Spanish search and rescue vessel Open Arms to disembark. On 13 September the longest stand-off in recent European maritime history ended, as 27 people rescued in the Maltese SAR zone were allowed to disembark in Sicily after almost 40 days stranded at sea.

Maltese and Italian authorities refuse to open ports to the Open Arms rescue vessel carrying 278 people including 56 unaccompanied children, rescued in three separate operations, two carried out in the Maltese SAR zone. Further, Malta has denied the vessel to move closer to shore to seek shelter during a storm in the area, and to evacuate people in need of medical attention. After more than a week at sea under harsh weather conditions the situation on-board is critical. According to the medical charity Emergency, nine people were in need of immediate hospital treatment with severe burns, including two pregnant women, one of them 18 years old and both suffering nausea and weakness. Civil Fleet reports that the two women and the husband of one of them were taken to Sicily by the Italian coast guard. On 17 September 70 people jumped overboard in desperation with an additional 48 jumping on September 18.

After warnings from Maersk Tanker, the owner of the ship Etienne, that supplies for the crew and 27 survivors on-board were running out and three people jumping overboard in desperation, disembarkation was finally allowed in Sicily. After almost 40 days stranded at sea the survivors were transferred to the Mare Jonio rescue vessel operated by Mediterranea Saving Humans and a day later allowed to disembark. The organisation stated: “The story of this merchant ship is in fact the story of the longest stand-off ever recorded in the central Mediterranean in recent years”.

Activity and tragedy continues at the Mediterranean. At least 24 lives were lost when an inflatable boat capsized off the Libyan coast IOM Libya reported on 15 September and according to the UN agency another 45 were returned to Libya by the so-called Libyan coast guard. On September 12, the Moroccan coast guard arrested 168 people trying to reach Spain, reportedly by any means including jet-skis and kayaks. According to the organisation Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) Italy has seen a significant increase of arrivals from Tunisia with 2,235 arrivals in August, bringing the total to 7,890 between 1 January and 31 August, 2020. 35 people arriving by boat to Southern Sardinia on 14 September were transferred to a reception centre on the mainland.

According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) Libya 8,435 people have been returned to Libya so far in 2020. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR estimates that 495 people have died or gone missing at the Mediterranean in 2020 as of September 16. A recent study published by IOM reveals that: “sea rescue missions by European authorities and NGOs reduce the deadliness of sea crossings without significantly incentivizing irregular migration”.

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 Photo: ECRE

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