The Sea Watch rescue ship | Photo: ANSA / AP Photo / Rene Rossignaud
The Sea Watch rescue ship | Photo: ANSA / AP Photo / Rene Rossignaud

The private rescue boat "Sea Watch 3" picked up 47 people on January 19 in Libyan waters. Since then, it has been trying to obtain entry to a safe port in Europe. Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini repeats that Italian ports remain closed. Meanwhile, the boat remains waiting at sea.

There’s a stand-off taking place off the coast of Sicily. All weekend, the rescue boat Sea Watch 3 run by German NGO Sea Watch has been anchored about two kilometers from land. The boat sought shelter from a storm on Friday, reporting waves of seven meters high.

The mayor of Siracusa in south-east Sicily, Francesco Italia, declared that he was happy to open his port and in fact allowed the Sea Watch 3 to shelter at anchor from the storm. “I think it is the moral duty of every person to come to the aid of other humans in difficulty, without thinking about where they might come from,” Francesco Italia told InfoMigrants.

The Mayor of Siracusa, Sicily, Francesco Italia | Photo: Still taken from Italian TV channel La 7

However, the boat still has no permission to dock. Italia says that’s because he is still waiting for an answer to the request he sent to the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport which controls the Coast Guard and Harbor Authorities in Italy. The minister of Transport and Infrastructure is Danilo Toninelli from the populist Five Star Movement (M5S).

Go to Marseille!

Speaking to a group of journalists on his way in to a meeting on Friday January 25, Toninelli repeated the government line: “Sea Watch 3…did not respect the law of the sea […] […] they should have waited for the Libyan coastguard to assign them a port, which they did not do. It all took place in the Libyan Search and Rescue zone (SAR).” When asked by the journalists what his solutions were, he replied: “I think […] they should head to France and the port of Marseille. Or, there’s another alternative, since they are flying a Dutch flag, and the Dutch have not, as far as I know, said anything about this yet, perhaps they ought to sort something out, given that they have allowed them to fly their flag!”

Toninelli’s party head Luigi di Maio, as well as deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini are, so far, sticking to that line. They seem to be waiting for Europe to do something, and perhaps offer to take on the 47 people aboard the Sea Watch 3. Reuters reported that the Dutch have so far refused Italian requests to take in the 47 migrants on board, reportedly saying “there is a need to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants.”

Salvini remains firm. He tweeted a video of the migrants aboard the boat looking calm under blue skies and relatively quiet seas. His caption: “The television news and the left are talking about storms at sea, freezing temperatures and children on board. Look for yourselves!!! I can see men with bare chests, a calm sea, headphones and telephones… I will not change my mind. You can only come to Italy by respecting the law, otherwise STOP.”

Respecting the law

Despite the government’s hard line, the mayor of Siracusa insists that there is not an actual law which has closed the ports in Italy. There is however, an order from the harbor authorities as of Sunday January 27. The order forbids any boat from approaching the Sea Watch and stops the Sea Watch approaching land. Now, says Italia, he can no longer go and visit the ship, as he did on Sunday with a group of politicians from various parties.

Migrants onboard the "Sea Watch 3" hoping for disembarkation, January 27, 2019 | Photo: Picture-alliance

When he was on board, he was able to see conditions for himself. He thinks Salvini’s attempts to show that all is fine, is missing the point: “It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, or how heavy the seas are, we are talking about human beings in difficult conditions.” Yet for now, his hand are tied.

Those human beings in difficult conditions told Italia and the group their stories. One Gambian man spoke to Italian TV cameras showing the scars across his stomach, his face and a bloody hole where one of his front teeth should be which he said he sustained during three separate incarcerations in Libya.

Difficult conditions

“All these things you see, […] I g[ot…] in Libya.” He told the cameras he had been working for three years in Libya to collect the 1000 euros he paid to make the sea crossing. He had arrived in Libya in 2013 and he’d already tried crossing three times before he was picked up by the Sea Watch 3. He endured three prison sentences too. The first time he escaped, the second time he sold land in his country to pay for his release. On the last time, he didn’t have any more money and they wounded him all over his body before he was finally released. “We have been on this boat for 10 days, no good food and hard to sleep. Everyone knows, this floor is iron, it is hard to sleep. We get no water to take bath, we are getting smelly you know.”

A Gambian migrant tells Italian TV reporters about the conditions he endured in Libya before being rescued by Sea Watch 3 during his third attempt crossing the Mediterranean | Photo: Still from La Repubblica TV / You Tube / Giorgio Ruta

Italia was on board the ship with the center-right politician Stefania Prestigiacomo, a native of Siracusa. She’s a politician with Silvio Berlusconi’s “People of Freedom” party (PdL) and a former minister. Prestigiacomo has also called for immediate disembarkation too: “We all agree that Europe needs to be involved. These people are at the end of their tethers. They all sleep together in one area. There is only one toilet which can’t just open into the sea.” She said her heart was hurting after she had seen the conditions which they were enduring.

A still of Italian politician Stefania Prestigiacomo talking to La Repubblica TV after her visit to The Sea Watch January 27 | Photo: La Repubblica TV / You Tube Report by Giorgio Ruta

Europe needs to help

Toninelli adds that lives should be saved and underlines that Italy has saved thousands of lives over the years. But he wants everyone sailing in the Mediterranean to respect the new European accords which means that anyone picked up in the Libyan SAR would automatically be sent back to Libya. Toninelli thinks the solution to really save lives would be to prevent anyone setting sail from Libya in the first place.

However, Italia concedes that there are “certain values which are above politics.” He too hopes that Europe will come and break the deadlock, perhaps offering to take some of the people aboard and not leave Italy alone to shoulder this burden.

In the meantime, the Italian coastguard has sent a small supply boat with bread, fruit and donated shoes, socks and clothes from concerned Italians who have watched as the case unfolds just a few miles from their shores. “The majority of Siracusans are behind me,” declares Italia, who feels frustrated watching this case unfold.

The Italian coast guard brings food and clothing to the migrants on board the Sea Watch 3 on January 27, 2019 | Photo: Picture-alliance

“These people are coming to us after having been imprisoned and tortured in Libya. They shouldn’t be imprisoned off the Italian coast too.” His solution: “Immediate disembarkation and then the Italian government should address the migratory flows seriously with Europe, but not at the expense of these human beings here.”


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