A coast guard cutter that rescued a boat carrying migrants from North Africa, including several women and children, arrives in Lampedusa on August 3, 2020 | Photo: ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
A coast guard cutter that rescued a boat carrying migrants from North Africa, including several women and children, arrives in Lampedusa on August 3, 2020 | Photo: ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO

NGO-run ships in the Mediterranean are systematically conducting search-and-rescue (SAR) operations at sea and should therefore follow the requirements of the service they are undertaking on a regular basis, the head of the coast guards' Sixth navigation and maritime security department, Admiral Luigi Giardino, told ANSA in a recent interview.

Search-and-rescue operations by NGO-run vessels in the Mediterranean are not carried out on an occasional basis but rather "in a systematic way", said Luigi Giardino, the head of the Sixth navigation and maritime security department of the Italian coast guards.

Giardino said the operations can't be described as "sudden" and "different" than their usual activity, as is the case for example of commercial vessels that are redirected and instructed by maritime authorities to rescue migrant boats in difficulty, he explained in an interview with ANSA. 

Therefore, ships that are operated by humanitarian organizations should be certified by their flag country for this type of ''service'' and, as a consequence, should abide by the requirements in place for those undertaking search and rescue missions, Giardino said. He was referring to the regulations laid out in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

Giardino explained that the ships otherwise operate outside international law. 

In the interview, the admiral tried to end a controversy on NGO-run ships, explaining the reasons that led to the administrative seizure over the last few months of such vessels, including the Aita Mari, Alan Kurdi, Sea Watch3 and Ocean Viking. 

Critical issues revealed by inspections 

First of all, he said, inspections of the ships carried out by coast guard officers with ''seriousness and objectivity'' abide by a specific European directive that concerns foreign ships docking in Italy's ports and moorings. Such inspections are ''ordinary'' and undertaken periodically "based on a ship's 'profile of risk'," he said. 

The Ocean Viking migrant-rescue ship run by Doctors without Borders (MSF) with SOS Méditerranée, for example, is listed among ships with a 'standard risk', which implies an inspection once a year. 

"Additional" controls can be carried out following ''factors of absolute priority'' and which are ''unexpected'', he explained. 

Such an inspection was carried out on the vessel on July 22, the admiral explained. The control was based on "objective evidence that the ship transported 'in a systematic way' more people than it can carry based on the security certification released by the flag State." 

"A significant number of deficiencies" were discovered following the investigation, which led to the administrative seizure of the ship, the admiral said. 

'Rescue ops by NGOs are not sudden activities' 

Giardino said the issue is complex and also connected to an evaluation of the ship's activity. The activity of "searching and assisting migrants is undertaken with inadequate" ships, "in the absence of a specific certification, and in a systematic way," according to the admiral. 

He said that this is confirmed by numbers: Over the past year the four NGO-run vessels carried out 52 rescue operations, 30 of which were undertaken by the Ocean Viking. Giardino said that, based on ''clear, objective evidence'', the vessels were deployed for a ''specific and widely declared activity which can't be described as a sudden, different use of the ship."

This, he said, is problematic because the vessels are inadequate for this purpose and the SOLAS convention, "one of the pillars of international law on the security of navigation," provides for the flag country to certify a ship for the type of "service" it undertakes. 

In January this year, the Italian coast guards "sent the flag states of NGO vessels an official statement asking them to adopt all the necessary measures to guarantee that those units are adequate and certified for that type of service," said the official. Such steps have not been taken so far, he said.

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