The quarantine ship Azzurra off Lampedusa | Photo: ARCHIVIO/ANSA/ELIO DESIDERIO
The quarantine ship Azzurra off Lampedusa | Photo: ARCHIVIO/ANSA/ELIO DESIDERIO

The Italian government has decided to abandon the use of quarantine ships adopted during the pandemic to isolate migrants at sea after their arrival in Italy.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, five ships were in service to isolate migrants who had just arrived in Italy irregularly. Only two are left now but in a few days the offshore quarantine system will end and the ships will be restored to their original 'mission': transporting tourists.

The quarantine-ships were activated in the midst of the Covid emergency in the summer of 2020. Migrants were isolated offshore upon their arrival to ease pressure on the healthcare system.

On Tuesday, May 31, an extension ordered by the health ministry allowing their use expired and no further deferments are expected. This means that, once the quarantine period ends for people currently on board the Azzurra and Aurelia ships (respectively in Lampedusa and Pozzallo), the service will end.

Health measures for new arrivals -- as migrant flows are expected to increase significantly in the summer -- will take place ashore.

Isolation to be handled inland

Quarantine ships have been long criticized by humanitarian organizations.

On Friday, May 27, the Guarantor for the rights of detained persons, Mauro Palma, called for their abolition as soon as possible. Quarantine ships, he said, were "a transitional and exceptional solution connected to the state of sanitary emergency."

"The state of emergency however ended on March 31 (nearly two months ago!) and they have not been written off yet," he noted.

Two decrees issued by the health ministry had extended the use of the offshore quarantine system for new arrivals on national territory.

Now prefectures on the frontline of arrivals, especially those on the island of Sicily and in the southern region of Calabria, will manage arrivals this summer -- with the coordination of the interior ministry -- using hosting centers and hotspots on the mainland.

Meanwhile departures from North Africa are on the rise: 18,841 landings have already been registered in the first five months of the year, up by 4,500 compared to the same period in 2021.

NGO-run migrant-rescue vessels are in full activity: on Monday morning (May 30) the Ocean Viking operated by SOS Mediterranee took 294 migrants to the port of Pozzallo.

A reported 80 others were rescued in the afternoon on the same day by the Aurora, the new ship of the German rescue organization Sea-Watch. A boat with 280 on board reportedly arrived in Reggio Calabria; and the hotspot of Lampedusa is said to be once again overcrowded.

Concern for migrant flows towards Italy due to Ukraine war

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese has repeatedly expressed concern over the past few weeks for the effects the war in Ukraine is already having on the African continent, where countries like Tunisia and Egypt -- which mainly rely on Ukrainian wheat imports to meet their food needs -- are already rationing bread after millions of tons of cereals were blocked in ports.

Lamorgese highlighted the "risk of a very serious humanitarian crisis that will impact migration flows," noting that "it is important for Europe to have a role" in this context. On June 4, a meeting has been scheduled in Venice between the ministers of interior of Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus (Med5) to discuss the theme.


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