The Ocean Viking private rescue vessel, run by the aid organization SOS Mediterranee, has rescued 37 migrants in distress off the coast of Libya on Saturday. Later that same day, the team on board the Geo Barents vessel, run by MSF, rescued 73 people.
The Ocean Viking crew said there were cases of fuel burns among the rescued migrants, which occur when the mix of petrol and salt water causes chemical burns to the skin.
Italian authorities assigned the port of Ancona on the Adriatic Sea for both ships to unload the 110 rescued migrants — a journey which SOS Mediterranee estimated would take about four days, not taking the presently choppy conditions at sea into consideration.
SOS Mediteranee stressed that the new practice of assigning a port of disembarkation far away from the Central Mediterranean Sea cold lead to "countless tragedies ... (which will) keep occurring without a trace."
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) added in a tweet that the Italian government forcing NGO boats to travel almost 1,000 nautical miles will "leave rescue zones uncovered with the inevitable increase in the number of deaths."
Few details are known so far about the backgrounds of those whose lives were saved. According to the German dpa news agency, the 37 people rescued by the Ocean Viking had reportedly all set sail from "the North African coast."
Meanwhile all that is known about the passengers on board the Geo Barents is that they likely had departed from Libya.
Read more: Italy's new NGO decree: 'The fewer days we're allowed at sea, the more people can die'
Charities limited by new Italian decree
The policy off allocating a port immediately after the first rescue was adopted by Italy's right-wing government at the end of 2022. The government claims that this will allegedly provide help for the rescued people sooner.
However, the quick allocation usually means that NGOs cannot rescue further migrants in distress at sea to fill their boats to capacity. Also to date, Italian authorities have only allocated ports far away from the central Mediterranean Sea.
Critics say that this is a tactic employed to minimize the number of rescued people brought into Italy, with private rescue ships spending far more time to travel to an assigned port to offload the rescued migrants than actually spending time rescuing further people in distress at sea. Among those taking umbrage in the law is the Catholic Church, which said the decree made no sense.
Under the decree, charities not abiding by the new rules risk fines of up to €50,000 and will risk having their vessels impounded for repeat offenses.
"This law is clearly made to discriminate against civilian vessels operating in the Central Mediterranean doing search and rescue," said Luisa Albera, search and rescue coordinator on board the Ocean Viking, which completed its first rescue mission under the provisions of the new decree on December 31, 2022.
Read more: Italy's new norms will not stop NGOs, says third sector forum
Different rules for non-NGO rescues
These rules, however, apply only to non-governmental entities engaged in sea rescues. National coast guards and commercial boats saving migrants en route are exempt.
This was exemplified when also on the weekend, a commercial vessel operating under the Norwegian flag was observed on maritime traffic channels to act in patterns which usually are indicative of a rescue: The Ramform Hyperion, a research vessel, was reportedly on its way to Malta when on Sunday morning, it began moving in spirals at sea.
A few hours later, it is was allegedly seen to have decelerated to a slow speed which, according to an unnamed source contacted by InfoMigrants, "looks very similar to what a rescue would look like."
By midday, the Ramform Hyperion reportedly increased back to full speed again, headed towards the Italian port of Syracuse — presumably with a number of rescued migrants on board. By late afternoon, maritime communications showed that the Italian coast guard vessel CP322 had agreed to rendezvous with the commercial vessel en route to Syracuse.
Later that afternoon, a Norwegian tugboat situated in the same area, was reportedly also behaving in similar patterns.
These reports, however, have not been independently verified and are based on maritime communications only.
Read more: Geo Barents races to save migrants despite Italy's new law
Several die in another incident
The sea crossing from North Africa to Europe remains a life-threatening affair, with many of the boats involved not being seaworthy from the onset. Repeated shipwrecks and drownings continue to make this one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world.
Only this weekend, five people drowned after suffering shipwreck off the Tunisian coast. A total of 35 people from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso had set off on a dinghy from the Tunisian port city Sfax in the early hours of January 5.
The next morning, the boat was found to be in distress outside Italy's search and rescue zone. By the time that the Italian coast guard came to the scene, their boat had sunk.
Two Tunisian fishing trawlers had managed to come to the rescue and were found carrying those who were saved at sea — but also the bodies of those who had drowned; one of the victims reportedly was only an infant.
Read more: International law and the criminalization of sea rescue
In 2022, more than 103,000 migrants arrived in Italy this way — more than double the number from the previous year, according to the Interior Ministry. Many of those managed to arrive independently in Italy without relying on any form of sea rescue.
According to the IOM, the numbers are somewhat different, with the rate of attempted crossings all over the Mediterranean in 2022 coming close to 125,000; with almost one in three of those being intercepted, the total number of people arriving in Europe in 2022 is more than 78,000, the UN body said in a recent report.
However, nearly 1,400 people meanwhile have died or are missing and presumed dead, according to the IOM's Missing Migrants Report — the vast majority of whom were found to have drowned at sea.
IOM stressed that "the documented number of deaths and disappearances on these migration routes (is) likely an undercount," adding that this is exemplified "by the hundreds of remains recovered on the shores of Libya which are not linked to any known shipwreck, as well as the many reports of shipwrecks with no survivors that are challenging to verify."
Read more: Looking for a missing loved one: How do I even begin to search and who can help?
with dpa, AP, ANSA