The Italian government appears to be using a new tactic against private sea rescue organizations operating in the Mediterranean. While previously the allocation of ports was often delayed or ships were confiscated, the government is now also asking rescue ships to make longer journeys.
Three private rescue ships -- the "Life Support", the "Rise Above" and the "Sea-Eye 4" -- rescued hundreds migrants from Mediterranean waters over the past week. Italian authorities assigned them ports for disembarkation relatively swift, but asked them to sail to ports in the north and east of the country, further prolonging their journey.
The Life Support and the Sea-Eye 4 were asked to sail to Livorno in the north of the country. The Rise Above was instructed to disembark in Taranto, southeaster Italy -- 150 kilometers further north from Roccella Ionica, where the ship had initially been instructed to land.
"We have never been assigned a port so far away before," the chairman of the rescue organization Sea Eye, Gorden Isler, told the epd news agency.
"The point is to keep the rescue ships as far away as possible from the rescue site in the central Mediterranean," Isler argued. He also claimed that these actions were in violation of international law.
SEA-EYE 4 and Life Support arrive in Livorno
The Sea-Eye 4 needed five days for the trip to Livorno and arrived there on Friday morning (December 23) with 108 refugees from two rescue operations on board.
Among the people rescued by the Sea-Eye 4 were several passengers who were in need of immediate medical treatment. They were among the first to leave the ship in Livorno. Three people with severe fuel burns, which they had contracted on their boat due to gasoline spills, were reportedly taken directly from the ship to a hospital.
"In the past few days, the medical team on board provided initial treatment to all 108 people rescued from distress at sea. 20 refugees suffered from moderate to severe burns from spilled gasoline. Three particularly severe cases had to be taken directly from the ship to hospital. I am glad that all those rescued are now on land and safe," said Nour Hanna, a spokesperson from German Doctors e.V.
Long way to Livorno
The Life Support vessel operated by the Italian organization Emergency brought 142 people to Livorno, where they arrived on Thursday morning (December 22). The crew had brought the refugees on board on Sunday and Monday in three rescue operations, including children and 26 unaccompanied minors. The ship, which can accommodate up to 175 people, had set out on its first rescue mission last week.
Passengers were immediately visited by medical staff and assisted before being transferred to different Italian regions. Personnel from the local maritime and border health office boarded carried out medical check-ups on passengers were be briefed by medical staff on the Life Support.
No COVID-19 cases, three passengers hospitalized
Medical staff along with police and prefecture personnel worked together at the port to assist, identify and distribute migrants upon landing. Tuscany's civil protection had worked to organize procedures since the night prior to the migrants' arrival. The first 50 passengers onboard Life Support visited by doctors were "in pretty good condition, although they were exhausted from their journey at sea", said Paolo Paolini, the Tuscan region's health official in charge of emergencies and the director of the remote rescue operation unit. Medical professionals at the port included specialists from Florence's Meyer children's hospital who treated minors including a seven-month-old boy.
Currently, no patients among the 50 checked have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Paolini. Tuscany's civil protection councillor, Monia Monni, noted that conditions on board were relatively good, considering their long journey and the fact that the choice of Livorno as safe port "prolonged this suffering by several days".
Passengers included five women, with two little children, a boy and a girl, under two years of age. Monni said these passengers, including a woman who was seven months pregnant, will be treated separately by doctors.
Recent arrivals will go to different regions within Italy
ANSA reported that the local administration will distribute minors into appropriate facilities for across the region, noting difficulties in finding housing for them. The local prefect is planning to open a special facility and others housed thanks to direct contacts between the region and the network of volunteers and NGOs.
The mayor of Livorno, Luca Salvetti, said the final destination of some of the passengers was changed from the original plan. The 142 refugees will go to the Marche, Molise and Abruzzo regions instead of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna while Liguria has remained as one of the destinations of choice. Salvetti added that he was struck by the "beautiful human relationship between migrants and Emergency volunteers."
"Since they couldn't hug to say goodbye, passengers used words to thank them for saving their lives," he said.
Isler, chairman of the rescue organization Sea Eye, criticized the actions of the Italian authorities in a statement. "There are many indications that it is a new strategy of the Italian authorities to assign ports as quickly as possible and as far away as possible. This is an attempt to keep rescue ships out of the area of operation as quickly and for as long as possible," he said.
Adding that the strategy "is changing, but the goal of the authorities remains the same: to make it more difficult to rescue people in order to reduce the number of arrivals in Europe," Isler argued.
Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees attempt the dangerous boat crossing from northern Africa to Italy across the Central Mediterranean Sea each year. More than 2,000 refugees and migrants have died or gone missing on the route in 2022 alone. The actual number of deaths, however, is thought to be much higher, as many boatwrecks are never recorded.
With ANSA and epd