The Sea-Watch crew on the Moonbird | Photo: DW/M.Zander
The Sea-Watch crew on the Moonbird | Photo: DW/M.Zander

Italian authorities have grounded an aircraft used by the non-government organization Sea-Watch to search for migrant boats in distress. Sea-Watch says it is a deliberate ploy to stop them from reporting what is taking place in the Mediterranean.

Italy on Friday issued a "prohibition to depart" order on  the "Moonbird" humanitarian aircraft, Sea-Watch announced. The Italian authorities have "closed our eyes on the Mediterranean sea," said Sea-Watch spokesperson Giorgia Lunardi in a video posted on Twitter.

"Since Friday, our airplane Moonbird is grounded with a prohibition to depart and monitor what is happening in the central Mediterranean between Lampedusa and Libya."

Lunardi said the reason for the grounding was that the "Italian government and the European Union want to make sure that no one knows what is going on in the central Mediterranean." She added that, in the eyes of the authorities, the organization had "spent too many hours at sea reporting the presence of people in need of immediate rescue."

What is happening in the central Mediterranean?

Lunardi also said that Sea-Watch's reporting of the "omissions of rescues and the unacceptable delays in providing support to these people, as well as the illegal interceptions and pushbacks of these people to Libya," were grounds for the interdiction to depart, because the government didn’t accept their reporting "to you [and] to the whole world, what is happening in the central Mediterranean."

Without reporting from organizations like Sea-Watch, governments would be able "to continue committing their crimes," Lunardi said in the video. 

Eyes on the MediterraneanMap showing the area near Libya where the Moonbird patrols | Credit: DW Moonbird and Seabird flew 19 missions in July for a total of 93 hours and 18 minutes, and spotted more than 1,344 persons in distress, according to Airborne Monthly Factsheet published on the Sea-Watch website. 

The airborne missions "highlight once again the deadly consequences of European migration policies; the systematic non-assistance of European Member States and the delegation of rescue operations to the so-called Libyan coast guard," according to Sea-Watch.

The number of distress calls it had identified showed "the need for NGO vessels in the Central Mediterranean in order to uphold the law and save human lives," Sea-Watch added.

According to an online Italian news portal Open, the block to Moonbird issued by the Italian national Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) stops the plane, a Cirrus Sr22, from taking off from Lampedusa. Without the planes, the work of humanitarian ships is also curtailed, wrote Open, as they rely on air surveillance support.


The Seabird is also grounded as it is undergoing maintenance work, leaving Moonbird the only humanitarian plane flying missions in that part of the Mediterranean,  according to Open.

Four rescue boats are currently operating in the central Mediterranean, Open reports: Sea-Watch 4; Louise Michel, a ship financed by the artist Banksy; the Spanish vessel Open Arms; and Mare Jonio, an Italian ship operated by Mediterranea.

Sea-Watch 3 has been held in a Sicilian port since June 3 because of alleged irregularities found after an inspection by the Italian coast guard. Ocean Viking and SOS Mediterranée are also being held at port following similar inspections.

Last year Italy grounded Moonbird and another plane, Colibri, operated by a French humanitarian organization Pilotes Volontaires. In 2018 the Maltese authorities also grounded Moonbird, stopping it from operating from Maltese territory for several months.


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