The crack-down on civilian search and rescue actors continues with the airplane Moonbird conducting aerial monitoring of people in distress grounded by Italian authorities. The move reducing search capacity happens amid a deadly crisis at the Mediterranean. The situation on the Danish ship Maersk Etienne where 27 people have been stranded at sea off Malta since 5 August took a new dramatic turn when 3 survivors jumped overboard in desperation on 6 September. The conditions in the Maltese detention facility in the Safi barracks are so terrible that detainees are begging to be returned.

Italian authorities have grounded the airplane Moonbird operated by Sea-Watch to survey the central Mediterranean to ensure the rescue of people in distress. A spokesperson from Sea-Watch stated that: “Italian authorities have closed our eyes on the Mediterranean Sea”, calling it an attempt to stop the monitoring of the omissions and delays of rescues from European coast guards and the push-backs to Libya. This is the latest of numerous examples of European governments cracking down on civilian search and rescue operators. Leaked internal documents reveal that the Federal Ministry of Transport used red-tape related to safety regulations in a deliberate attempt to prevent German search and rescue vessels from leaving ports.

The grounding of the Moonbird reduces search capacity at a time of push-backs and recent tragedies on the Mediterranean. On September 5 authorities in Limassol, Cyprus leased a private boat to push-back 14 children, six women and 13 men to Lebanon. On 9 September 76 people, some in need of immediate medical intervention, were intercepted and taken back to Libya by the so-called Libyan coast guard. In a risky operation due to weather conditions Italian authorities have transferred 700 people from an overcrowded facility on the island of Lampedusa to a ferry for a 14-day precautionary COVID-19 quarantine. The island has seen a stark increase in arrivals. On 10 September the NGO hotline Alarm Phone received a distress call from a boat in the Maltese SAR zone carrying 65 people that ran out of food and water after three days at sea, no rescue has been initiated so far. On 11 September, 77 people departing from Libya 20 hours earlier were rescued by the Spanish search and rescue organisation Open Arms.

The owner of the ship Etienne that has been stranded at sea off Malta since 5 August, recently warned that supplies for the crew and 27 survivors onboard were running out. The situation is now so desperate that three survivors had to be saved by the crew when they jumped overboard. One of the three reportedly expressed that he wanted to “liberate the vessel” from himself implying that he was a burden and that the crew “did not deserve” to remain stuck here for being kind enough to rescue them.

ICS, UNHCR and IOM call on states to end the humanitarian crisis on the ship: “Governments have been refusing permission for the ship’s Master to disembark the migrants and refugees who fled Libya, in contravention of international law. The ship’s crew have been sharing food, water and blankets with those rescued. They are however not trained or able to provide medical assistance to those who need it. A commercial vessel is not a safe environment for these vulnerable people and they must be immediately brought to a safe port”.

A group of men who have spent months in detention in the Safi barracks in Malta, cramped under appalling conditions and with no information on their asylum process are so desperate that they are begging to be returned to the countries they fled. A detainee stated to Times of Malta: “I left my country a year ago, I spent months in Libya where I was imprisoned and tortured. Then I came here by sea, and they kept us at sea for a month, and then we spent another two months here. They gave us the same clothes that we have on us right now,” adding: “Proper nutrition is non-existent, there is no food, there is no good source of water, there are no toilets, and there is nothing related to hygiene or health”.

According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) Libya 7,981 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 10.

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Photo: ECRE

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