From: Alice Taylor
Italy Risks Human Lives Through Detaining NGO Rescue Vessel

Delays caused by the blocking of the Ocean Viking rescue ship by Italian port authorities is leading to a situation where human lives are at stake, according to Julia Schaefermeyer, communications officer at SOS Mediterranean, the NGO that charters the vessel.

The Ocean Viking, an NGO-run rescue vessel used to save migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, was detained in the Sicilian port of Trapani on Monday 7 February. While the ship was due to be subjected to a port state control, the “extreme scrutiny” and ongoing detention means the ship is unable to continue its lifesaving missions.

“We are not able to continue our lifesaving missions while the ship is detained. We know that 2022 was a particularly deadly year in the Central Mediterranean, the International Organisation for Migration estimates that 1553 people lost their lives last year. So this is particularly painful for us,” Schaefermeyer told EURACTIV in an interview from Trapani.

She continued that the gap in life-saving operations in the central Mediterranean is huge, so any assets being out of operation will be missed, at the expense of migrant lives.  

The ship’s detention

The last mission of the Ocean Viking ended with the disembarkation of 114 survivors in Trapani on Christmas Day. The NGO was notified that the vessel was eligible for a port control as the last was in December 2020 and they become eligible again after one year. The inspection took place on Monday and ended with the detention of the ship.

Schaefermeyer explained that the Ocean Viking has been subjected to a total of six port state controls in two and a half years, more than the expected one a year. These controls often lasted between nine and 12 hours and she explained that the Ocean Viking passed “most of them” bu5 were detained twice, once in summer 2020 and the second time now, on different grounds

“What’s really hard to comprehend is that there always seems to be new regulations that are applied to is. It seems like extreme scrutiny we are under and while we acknowledge the importance of these port state controls, we also know we are not the only humanitarian vessel that has had to suspend its operations for these reasons,” she said.

She explained that communication with the Italian authorities was been formal and has involved multiple stakeholders, including the ships owner, regulatory bodies, maritime administrations and the classification society, as the NGO only charters the vessel.

In terms of the identified deficiencies, Schaefermeyer explains that “the other stakeholders will need to enter into the dialogue to assess how to rectify them.”

“We want to guarantee a quick release of the vessel and resume our operations as soon as we can,” she added.

A perilous journey

Thousands of migrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean every year, mainly from Tripoli and headed towards Italy. Vessels used are often unseaworthy, not subject to any checks, and are overcrowded without life-saving equipment.

When a vessel gets into difficulty in the search and rescue area of an EU state, it is up to that state to take responsibility. Other migrant vessels are intercepted by rescue vessels run by NGOs, or by passing ships.

Once the migrants have been picked up, a political and diplomatic struggle starts to find a port that will allow the disembarkation of those on board. Malta, situated in the middle of the Mediterranean route, has flatly refused to allow disembarkation and has even ignored its obligations to search and rescue within its designated area.

The EU has ploughed millions into training the Libyan Coastguard and providing them with vessels and equipment to carry out their own search and rescue missions. The issue is that this entails returning migrants to Libya, something that is controversial and potentially illegal due to the human rights situation once the migrants arrive.

Those that are not picked up by a rescue vessel or do not make it on their own, perish.  An average of four people died every day in 2021, while attempting to make the journey.

The situation in Libya

The reality for migrants in Libya remains concerning. Schaefermeyer explains, “we continue to think about the people still trapped in Libya  who we know will continue to have to risk their lives to escape that situation.”

She explains that there are many cases where those trying to attempt the crossing, get intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard and sent back to detention centres. Once in detention centres, they have to “buy their way back out each time”, before attempting the crossing once more.

“I spoke to a 23-year-old man from Nigeria who goes by the name Favre. He told me the sea is used as business and there is a system he is trapped in where he has to pay his way out of detention and onto boats. Each time he is intercepted and the cycle starts again,” Schaefermeyer explained.

She added that many survivors report being beaten and forced onto boats by heavily armed smugglers. Others say there were sold and trafficked multiple times during their journey to Libya.

“People then find themselves forced into unpaid labour held for ransom and key in arbitrary detention. So basically, at each step of the way, we hear from people that they were being treated like merchandise, or worse, in some cases,” she adds.

Schaefermeyer said she has spoken to many survivors who said they were promised safety or economic opportunities but who then found themselves in debt to a smuggler and forced into slave labour or sexual exploitation.

“In the case of women, this is often sexual abuse or forced sex work that they find themselves forced to do to pay their way out of the situation they find themselves in in Libya,” she said.

Voices from the sea

The testimonies given by survivors are haunting. Women have often told Schaefermeyer of how they have been brutally and systemically raped in Libyan detention centres, with others reporting their unconcious bodies, pitted with cigarette burns, were left for dead in dumpsters.

Others have spoken of the daily beatings at the hands of those running detention centres and smuggling.

“Every morning they beat us. My arms, my scars,” one said, while another added, “to make us get on the boat, they whipped us.”

Another man who has travelled extensively in search of a better life said, “all these years of having to flee from one place to another, that’s a slow death.”