The Ocean Viking migrant rescue ship operated by SOS Mediterranee left the port of Marseille on January 11 to travel to the central Mediterranean and resume rescue operations for the first time after six months. Over the next few days, the 22 members of the medical and rescue team will prepare for new operations at sea, the NGO said.
After halting all activity for six months, the vessel Ocean Viking operated by European search-and-rescue organization SOS Mediterranee has left Marseille, in France, to reach the central Mediterranean.
The NGO said in a statement that "this first mission of the year comes after months of costly efforts to release the ship from an administrative seizure imposed on July 22 by Italian authorities, based on new interpretations of navigation rules for rescue ships."
The year 2020, the organization went on to say, "was devastating for the central Mediterranean" with the lack of rescue operations contributing to "779 reported deaths and a high likelihood that many more deaths have not been documented."
SOS Mediterranee "is relieved that it can resume rescue operations while highlighting the absolute need for European States to reintroduce an effective coordination system for rescue operations."
'2020 horrible year for people trapped in Libya'
"We are returning to the central Mediterranean for the first time in months, but we all remember that 2020 was a horrible year for the people trapped in Libya, prisoners of a cycle of abuse, and for those who tried to flee by sea. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the 'closure' of ports was once again decided, continuing to force those who flee to risk their lives at sea in search of security," Valeria Taurino, the director general of Sos Mediterranee Italia, said in the statement.
"Merchant ships fulfilling their role to rescue remained stranded at sea for weeks and the authorities in charge refused to provide a solution to let rescued shipwrecked people disembark. In June, our ship Ocean Viking, left without instructions for days, had to declare a state of emergency on board because uncertainty and the lack of prospects had driven survivors beyond their endurance limit."
'Thousands of pusbacks' last year
The NGO denounced over the course of 2020 "repeated, long delays by maritime authorities in rescuing people in grave danger at sea."
The organization also denounced "thousands of pushbacks of survivors to Libya, in clear violation of international law: over 11,000 people were forcibly sent back to Libya and its detention camps."
It went on to say that "NGO ships were systematically blocked, de facto creating a lethal black hole in the central Mediterranean."
SOS Mediterranee said that in 2020 at least 779 women, men and children died or were reported missing, according to the accounts provided by very few survivors, while the actual death toll remains unknown.
"This situation is unacceptable and must end immediately," said Taurino.
"Our ship, the Ocean Viking, is setting off with a team that is prepared for the worst: situations of life and death in the open sea. Useless delays in rescue operations and prolonged stalemates at sea put human lives at risk. The only way to prevent more tragedies is to respect maritime law once again and an authentic European solidarity with coastal states," she added.