A picture showing the cargo vessel Marina St Johns | Source: Vesselfinder
A picture showing the cargo vessel Marina St Johns | Source: Vesselfinder

On Saturday, 79 migrants rescued by the cargo ship Marina St Johns last week were able to disembark in Sicily ahead of a 14-day quarantine period. About 162 migrants are still waiting on other ships at sea with no word on when, or where, they might disembark.

For the 79 migrants rescued by the cargo ship Marina St Johns last week, the wait is finally over. Conditions for the migrants on board had become "intolerable" according to the captain, with food supplies reaching their end and migrants forced to sleep on deck on top of cold steel. An announcement that Italy would provide a designated safe port came on Friday, May 8, and was tweeted by SOS Mediterranée.

According to reports in Italian newspaper La Sicilia and the Protestant news agency EPD, the 79 migrants, including two women, were temporarily allowed to disembark on land on Saturday, May 9. and taken to a welcome center in Syracuse until the ferry assigned for their quarantine, the Moby Zazà, arrived in Porto Empedocle.

La Sicilia reported that the ferry arrived in the early hours of May 10 and was inspected by the captain of the port to make sure that it met all requirements for isolation. According to Italian newspapers, it is expected to then be moored about 2 or 3 sea miles off the port to host the rescued migrants for 14 days.

Cost of ferry rental?

The ferry is operated by the Italian company Moby Lines. For the last couple of years it had been ferrying passengers back and forth between Genova and Bastia, the capital of Corsica. It is the second ferry used in Sicily to quarantine migrants for 14 days. The Rubattino, from the Italian company Tirrenia is still moored off Palermo. The Moby Zazà will be moored on the other side of the island at Porto Empedocle, near Lampedusa's administrative district Agrigento. According to Wikipedia, it was constructed in 1981 to carry at least 2,048 passengers.

Not everyone is happy about this solution for the migrants though. Francesca Donato, a Member of the European Parliament for Italy's anti-immigrant Lega party, tweeted over the weekend that the costs of renting such ships were "a step too far" (the drop that made the vase spill over), especially whilst Italy faces a health and economic emergency.

A local online portal, Canicatti web, reported that Donato claimed the Italian government would be paying the ferry company between €900,000 and €1.2 million for a month, with the possibility of extending the rental period. The sum paid will depend on the number of migrants hosted, Donato said. The MEP was quoted in Canicatti web saying that the ship was "equipped with every comfort and luxury, with double and quadruple cabins and en suite bathrooms." She calculated that the rental sum meant that the government would be paying "€4210 for every illegal migrant on board." 

How she arrived at that sum in particular is not clear. Even if you accept that the cost per migrant for a month is €4,210, and then you multiply that by 79, the total reached is €332,590. If you multiply the ship's full capacity, which could not be used and still comply with the measures to guard against spread of the virus, the sum per month at a cost of €4,210 per person would reach over 8 million. She called the arrangement a "slap in the face for all the Italians who have been suffering [during the coronavirus pandemic]."

Donato called for "clarity" at the level of the European Parliament. She asked for an immediate response from the Italian government on the matter too.

European intervention

Meanwhile, the private rescue organization SOS Mediteranée has also called on the European Parliament to intervene, after they tweeted that another 162 migrants are still waiting at sea aboard chartered Maltese vessels after having been rescued. Malta has refused to open its ports until an EU relocation agreement is reached. There is still no clarity for them as to when, or where, a safe harbor will be announced.

According to EPD, the migrants, like those on board the Marina St Johns, were all rescued in the Maltese search and rescue zone (SAR). 57 of them were rescued on April 30 and transferred to a chartered cruise ship, the Europa II. 

105 were rescued last Wednesday on May 6 and are now on board the Bahari. Both ships are owned by the Captain Morgan cruise lines, reported the online portal Malta Today. Other cruise companies in the country have allegedly been complaining that they were not invited to tender to host the migrants. According to that portal, the ferry company is being paid €3,000 per day to host the migrants.

Malta: 'Not in a position to ensure a safe place for rescued migrants'

On May 11, Malta Today reported the words of Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela who told the Council of Europe that Malta was "not in a position to ensure a safe place for rescued migrants."

The Prime Minister was responding to the EU Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic who asked Malta to "fully meet its obligations when notified of a distress situation."

In a tweet, Mijatovic said that while she acknowledged the challenges Malta faced, both from arrivals in general and COVID-19, these challenges "cannot negate clear obligations to save lives at sea and to ensure prompt and safe disembarkation." 

Mijatovic published her exchange of letters with Abela on May 11. In the letters, Mijatovic once again underlined that Libya "cannot be considered a place of safety," and called upon the government of Malta to "refrain from any action that would result in the return to and disembarkation in Libya of persons rescued or intercepted at sea."


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