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Survivors on board the search and rescue ship Sea-Watch 4 finally offered a port of safety in Palermo, Italy

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Central Mediterranean Sea 2020 © Thomas Lohnes/MSF

Today the search and rescue ship Sea-Watch 4 was assigned a place of safety in Palermo, Italy—11 days after completing its first rescue operation and 10 days after first requesting a place of safety. There are currently 353 rescued people on board the ship run by the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in partnership with Sea-Watch, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that conducts search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea.

MSF relaunched its lifesaving search and rescue operations on August 15, departing from the port of Burriana, Spain, for international waters off the coast of Libya—a four-day journey. Between August 22 and 24, the Sea-Watch 4 conducted three rescue operations, rescuing 202 people, including 56 children.

On August 29, following instructions from Maltese authorities, the Sea-Watch 4 assisted the only other search and rescue boat in the Central Mediterranean Sea—a ship called Louise Michel funded by the artist Banksy—taking on an additional 152 people.

Here, MSF humanitarian affairs advisor Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui explains the situation in the Central Mediterranean and what she has witnessed over the last few weeks.

What is happening in the Central Mediterranean Sea right now?

The situation at sea is dire. In the last 11 days, we have witnessed how European Union (EU) states are condemning people to drown and blocking action to save them. Nearly 400 people have died in the Central Mediterranean Sea in 2020. It’s hard to understand how this can be allowed to happen. But it does.

Two weeks ago, 45 people lost their lives in a shipwreck. A few days ago, people crowded onto a rubber dinghy saw four of their group drown. Nearly 400 people have been left stranded at sea waiting for a port of safety—some for days, some for weeks. Twenty-seven people rescued on the orders of Malta by a commercial oil tanker, the Etienne, have been stranded at sea for nearly four weeks.

This is the result of deliberate policies to prevent NGOs and other actors from saving lives. In recent months, Malta and Italy have been ignoring distress calls from rubber boats and delaying rescues in areas of the Mediterranean Sea that fall under their responsibility. But they are not the only EU states looking the other way.

The failure of states has forced NGOs to try to fill the gap, setting up search and rescue operations. But, due to the impounding of ships and unclear administrative blockages, the Sea-Watch 4 and the Louise Michel are currently the only search and rescue vessels active in the Central Mediterranean.

What has the Sea-Watch 4 experienced since launching operations?

What we have seen is a disgrace. Since returning to sea we have been consistently confronted by states, chiefly Malta and Italy, using dirty tactics, ignoring distress calls at sea, and passing the buck to commercial ships or NGO search and rescue ships.

We carried out our first rescue within hours of arriving in international waters, off the coast of Libya, on August 22. This rescue was followed by two more rescues in the following days. Despite repeated requests for a place of safety, we were not offered one.

States are now instructing commercial and NGO vessels to assist in rescues, and then refusing to provide a place of safety. Last weekend, August 29 and 30, Malta instructed the Sea-Watch 4 to transfer rescued people from the Louise Michel, bringing the total number of rescued people on board [our ship] to 353. The Maltese maritime authorities then proceeded to ignore our requests to be allocated a place of safety.

On the evening of Monday, August 31, we were finally notified that we will be able to disembark 353 rescued people in Palermo, Italy–the closest place of safety.

What are MSF’s main concerns for the people on board the Sea-Watch 4?

We are particularly concerned about children—we have about 100 unaccompanied minors on board. They are extremely vulnerable and in need of protection.

The majority of people on board were rescued more than a week ago. With so many people in such a confined space, tensions run high. You can only imagine how difficult the situation is, especially as we try to implement strict COVID-19 protocols on board.

Many people are highly traumatized [from their time in Libya and their time stranded at sea]. People transferred from the Louise Michel witnessed four people drowning. Only one body was recovered. On top of this there is the anguish and anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. These states are toying with people’s lives—it is cruel.

What does the MSF medical team on board the Sea-Watch 4 witness?

Alongside seasickness and dehydration and scabies, we see chemical burns. This results from a toxic mix of petrol and seawater. One teenager was so badly burned that we had to arrange a medical evacuation. Our teams are also treating broken limbs and trauma injuries consistent with reports of abuse and torture in Libya.

We implement strict COVID-19 protocols, so we are paying particular attention to anyone with possible symptoms, such as a cough or high temperature, and ensure they are isolated. Both the crew and rescued people follow proper handwashing and wear face masks.

Why did MSF assist the Louise Michel?

On Friday, August 28, the Louise Michel spotted a crowded rubber dinghy holding 130 people. The Louise Michel—which is only 30 meters long—was already full, with 89 previously rescued people on board. More than six hours after the dinghy was spotted, no state had responded, so the Louise Michel had no choice but to start bringing people on board and provided a life raft when their boat got too full. On Saturday, August 29, the Louise Michel issued another call for assistance to which the Sea-Watch 4 responded.

Eventually, the Italian authorities assisted by taking 49 of the most vulnerable people—including children, pregnant women, and people with medical emergencies—to the port of Lampedusa. The Maltese authorities instructed the Sea-Watch 4 to take the remaining 152 people from the Louise Michel on board. Malta, however, did not assign a port of safety to disembark the group—and ignored repeated requests for one.

What happened when the Sea-Watch 4 asked for a place of safety?

A rescue can only be considered complete when rescued people are disembarked in a place of safety. On Sunday, August 23, we wrote to the Maltese and the Italian authorities, to request one. We copied in Germany, the flag state of the Sea-Watch 4. We continuously repeated our request.

The Maltese authorities have consistently ignored us or responded to us negatively. Italy was slow to respond but on Friday, August 28, the Italian authorities asked us for more information–such as whether there were family groups, unaccompanied minors, and urgent medical cases. But we had absolutely no certainty about when and how we would be able to disembark rescued people. We all had the situation of the Etienne, at sea for weeks, at the forefront of our minds.

Why did the Sea-Watch 4 request Italy and Malta to assign a place of safety?

All EU states share responsibility. Those looking the other way are also failing to assist Italy and Malta, who are at the forefront [of these migration issues due to their geography]. Italy, for example, has been left virtually alone in responding to the hundreds of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have arrived by themselves in the port of Lampedusa in recent months. [But] when it comes to a place of safety, it should be the closest safe place where the authorities would then assess the people’s needs for protection. That was why—despite the offer from the port of Marseille, France—we could not travel over many days to disembark people there. What France and other European states can do is to reach out to Italy to offer to relocate some of the rescued people.

What additional challenges does COVID-19 bring to search and rescue operations?

As a medical humanitarian organization, MSF is aware of the risks posed by COVID-19. MSF has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in more than 70 countries, including in Italy. We take all necessary precautions and have implemented very strict COVID-19 protocols on board the Sea-Watch 4. If we are asked to quarantine people we bring to a place of safety, as long as basic conditions are met, this is an acceptable measure.

What we will not accept is if the ship is impounded for no good reason, as we have seen happen recently. We may be told, for example, that we have too many people on board despite having followed orders from state maritime authorities to take those additional people.

Why can't people be taken back to Libya?

Libya is not a safe place, and returning people to Libya is a breach of international law. Why? Because Libya is absolutely not a place of safety. This has been stated by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In Libya, MSF runs projects in Tripoli, Misrata, Zintan, and Beni Walid. We see the abuse migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers endure not only in detention, but also in the hands of traffickers. This includes torture and other ill-treatment, forced labor, and extortion.

A recent major shipwreck off the Libyan coast, took at least 45 lives. Our teams met some of the survivors after they were taken back to Libya. Their stories were harrowing.

But still, nearly 8,000 people have been intercepted by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard and “pushed back” to Libya

What needs to change?

We once again are witnessing a human-made disaster. European states must take responsibility. Italy and Malta are failing to meet legal obligations to rescue people or to allocate a port of safety and appropriate assistance. But, let’s also be very clear, the responsibility for this does not rest upon these two countries alone. Every European state has a role to play, to offer concrete solutions, to share the responsibility, and establish an appropriate search and rescue mechanism at sea. In addition to the rescues carried out by the Sea-Watch 4 and the Louise Michel, a number of people manage to arrive at Lampedusa and other landing spots in the south of Italy.

European states must deploy adequate search and rescue capacity at sea and respond to distress calls. These cruel stand-offs at sea must end. No ifs, no buts. No tossing the ball between states. This is entirely possible with state-led search and rescue capacity and cooperation for a predictable and sustainable mechanism to disembark rescued people in the nearest place of safety.