Humanitarian rescue organizations are accusing a supply ship, the Vos Triton, of participating in what they call an "illegal pushback" to Libya, in which migrants rescued from a drifting boat were handed over to the Libyan coast guard.
"Yesterday, on June 14, our aircraft Seabird witnessed multiple human rights violations in the central Mediterranean," begins a video posted to Sea-Watch International’s Twitter page and re-posted by Alarm Phone.
The voice speaks as pictures taken from the observation plane Seabird, also operated by Sea-Watch, show a clear visual of the supply ship Vos Triton in the middle of a deep blue Mediterranean sea. Nearby is a small wooden boat and at a certain point several migrants jump from that boat and start swimming in open water towards the Vos Triton.
'Refusal to render assistance'
According to Sea-Watch, the crew of the Vos Triton originally "refused to render assistance to the more than 180 people on board the small wooden boat." The migrant boat, says Sea-Watch, was "already adrift" for some time "because their engine was broken."
While the Seabird aircraft was at the scene, the crew said that "over the duration of an hour multiple people jumped into the water in the attempt to reach safety onboard the Vos Triton."
The Sea-Watch video says that after some people had reached the Vos Triton, they "finally complied with international regulations and rescued the wooden boat and took all people on board."
Back to Libya
"Later in the evening," explains the Sea-Watch representative, they overheard on their radios that the Vos Triton was in touch with the Libyan coast guard "in order to hand over the 180 rescuees." Sea-Watch says that the Libyan coast guard was then "supposed to pushback the people illegally to Tripoli."
Even later that night, continues Sea-Watch "our sources confirmed that the [Libyan coast guard] patrol boat was repatriating all the people to Tripoli," where they are now, states Sea-Watch "facing violations of international human rights as Libya is not a safe country."
The Italian state broadcaster Rai said on its TG3 news report about the event, that the rescue had taken place in international waters, appearing to confirm that this would be an illegal pushback as Sea-Watch has stated.
'Returned to conditions of detention, torture and rape'
Alarm Phone added on June 15 on its Twitter feed that those taken back to Libya would be "returned to conditions of detention, torture and rape."
On June 13, the spokesperson for the UN migration agency IOM, Safa Msehli, tweeted that "around 1,000 migrants were intercepted off Libya, [on June 12]." Msehli added that "more people have been returned so far this year than in the whole of 2020."
According to the website Marine Traffic which shows the position of ships and gives some details about them too, the Vos Triton is sailing under a Gibraltararian flag. During its most recent voyage, it set off from Libya on June 16 in the morning and is expected back in the port of Farwah late on the same day.
An internet search suggests that it is operated by a Dutch shipping multinational Vroon, which lists one of its local offices in Genoa, Italy as the contact. It is listed by Vroon as a multi-purpose ship, a tug, supply vessel, oil recovery and fire-fighting ship.
Previous cases involving the Vos Triton
This is not the first time that the Vos Triton has been involved in migrant rescue in the central Mediterranean. In February this year, InfoMigrants French, quoting the Italian left-wing radio Radio Radicale, reported that the Vos Triton had rescued 77 migrants and had, also on that occasion, wanted initially to take them to Libya. However, after the migrants "staged a protest," they were eventually brought to Porto Empedocle on Sicily.
In that case too, the Vos Triton had first promised to go to the aid of migrants and then did not immediately offer assistance, according to Sea-Watch. Similarly, Sea-Watch’s surveillance plane Moonbird kept an eye on the Vos Triton’s movements after they eventually picked up the migrants.
It said that that rescue took place in international waters but in the Libyan search-and-rescue zone. Initially, the crew of the Vos Triton had coordinated with the Libyan authorities and were heading back towards Libya.
Investigated by Italian prosecutors
On arrival in Sicily, Italian prosecutors began an investigation of the case. According to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, reporting at the time, they found that there hadn’t been a proper "revolt" but that the migrants had expressed their disappointment when they found out that the Vos Triton was heading back towards Libya.
La Stampa also reported that the crew of the Moonbird, having seen the Vos Triton appeared to be heading towards Libya, called the ship from the air to tell them that they should not return the migrants to Libya. The Moonbird received "no response," wrote La Stampa. Soon after however, the Vos Triton changed course and arrived in Sicily.
In February, according to La Stampa, the Vos Triton was working for an oil platform off the coast of Libya, owned by the French oil company Total. La Stampa also stated that in 2019 the ship took 54 migrants, picked up 70 nautical miles from the African coast, back to Libya.