Collage of three NGO search and rescue vessels: Ocean Viking, Sea-Watch 3 and Alan Kurdi | Photo: SOS Mediterranee/Sea-Watch/Sea-Eye
Collage of three NGO search and rescue vessels: Ocean Viking, Sea-Watch 3 and Alan Kurdi | Photo: SOS Mediterranee/Sea-Watch/Sea-Eye

Three private humanitarian organizations -- Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch and SOS Mediterranee -- which operate rescue operations in the Mediterranean have called for the immediate release of their migrant rescue vessels, which are still blocked by Italian authorities. Among the allegations levelled against the charities by the Italian authorities are environmental pollution and transporting too many "passengers."

Three NGOs have warned of a "dramatic escalation" of the humanitarian situation in the Mediterranean Sea in view of the "targeted blocks" of their search and rescue (SAR) vessels.

In a joint statement from Tuesday (August 4), the charities Sea-Eye and Sea-Watch (both German) and SOS Mediterranee (European) said that currently no civilian rescue vessel was operating in the central Mediterranean.

"Although more people tried to flee Libya in unseaworthy boats in recent weeks, by now almost all active sea rescue vessels are detained in Italy for alleged safety deficiencies or are being hindered [from going] to work by imposing requirements we cannot meet," the statement said.

Julian Pahlke, spokesperson for Sea-Eye, criticized Italy for preventing the three vessels from pursuing their missions. The allegations are "absurd,"  Pahlke said on Twitter.

In the past eight weeks alone, the charities said, Sea-Watch's civil surveillance planes Moonbird and Seabird documented more than 2,100 persons in distress at sea. "In many of these cases, the people were returned to Libya by the so-called Libyan coast guard against international law."

The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation in the central Mediterranean even more complicated. In April, both Italy and Malta officially closed their ports to NGO migrant rescue vessels.

Ocean Viking, Sea-Watch 3, Alan Kurdi still stuck

Late last month, Italy's coast guard detained and blocked the Ocean Viking migrant rescue ship, run by aid group SOS Mediterranee, at a Sicilian port. The coast guard claimed they had found "several technical and operational irregularities" during an inspection.

The Sea-Watch 3 was seized by Italian authorities in mid-July and has spent the last three weeks moored off Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities had argued that the vessel had "functional deficiencies."

And on May 5, the Italian coast guard impounded the Sea-Eye's Alan Kurdi at the port of Palermo in Sicily, citing "irregularities," after the German-flagged vessel arrived in Italy with 150 migrants on board, which it had rescued off Libya.

"In the absence of European efforts ... NGOs have filled a massive gap, especially in recent years," Safa Msehli, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told InfoMigrants last month. "Any restrictions on their life-saving efforts should be lifted immediately."

NGOs criticize European authorities

In their joint statement, the three NGOs accuse the European maritime rescue coordination centers (MRCCs) of not meeting their obligation to coordinate distress calls and assign a safe harbor to the survivors repeatedly.

"European authorities accepted that hundreds of people drowned in the Mediterranean in recent months," the statement read.

Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch and SOS Mediterranee also called on the German government to use its presidency of the EU Council to introduce both a "long overdue" distribution mechanism for those rescued that shows solidarity and introduce an official "European coordinated sea rescue".

Germany took over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union on July 1 for the rest of 2020.

NGO ships 'rightly controversial'

Last week, conservative CDU German politician Friedrich Merz told German state broadcaster ZDF that the rescue of shipwrecked migrants in the Mediterranean was primarily the responsibility of governments.

"One cannot leave saving people from distress at sea to NGOs alone," Merz said, adding in a tweet later that NGO ships were "rightly controversial" because some feel they potentially act as so-called "pull-factors," attracting more migrants to Europe.

A study by the European University Institute from last November, however, found no link found between the number of Mediterranean crossings and level of NGO rescue ship activity. The findings challenge the widespread claim in Europe that NGO search and rescue activity has been a pull factor for migrants.

Meanwhile, a new private rescue vessel, the Sea-Watch 4 is to go on its first mission shortly. The United4Rescue initiative, which is backed by the Protestant Church in Germany, had acquired the ship in February.

With material from KNA and epd

In the original version of the article, published on August 4, we erroneously wrote that the Alan Kurdi was impounded in "early June" when it was in fact impounded on May 5. The correction was made on August 6.


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