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Humanitarian NGOs working at sea join together to restore rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea
Legal action, launch of a new mission, publication of a joint press release… The main sea rescue NGOs have been organising themselves for several months to deal with the Italian authorities’ successive detention of their vessels.
The Alan Kurdi (Sea Eye), the Sea-Watch 3 (Sea Watch) and the Ocean Viking (SOS Méditerranée) were detained by the Italian coastguard on 5 May, 8 and 22 July respectively. In August, the three associations issued a joint statement denouncing the “absurd” reasons that led the Italian government to block their vessels. The NGO Sea Eye went further and started legal action against the Italian Ministry of Transport on 5 August. These ships were only able to resume their activities in September for the Alan Kurdi and in August for MSF and Sea Watch with the launch of Sea-Watch 4. The Ocean Viking is still at a standstill.
On 19 September, the Sea-Watch 4 was in turn inspected and detained by the Italian authorities. According to Sea Watch officials, this decision shows once again that the Italian coastguard is not there “to guarantee the safety of ships but to systematically hinder search and rescue operations”. The health crisis and quarantine procedures have also limited the activities of rescue NGOs at sea. Indeed, a long quarantine period was imposed on the Open Arms and Alan Kurdi vessels after they landed migrants rescued at sea, effectively preventing any rescue operation in the Mediterranean.
On 8 October, nine organisations involved in the rescue operations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Sea Watch and Alarm phone, published a video in which they denounced the campaign of “criminalisation” of their actions by the Greek and Italian authorities.
In Italy, however, the government has amended the two “security decrees” adopted in 2018 and August 2019 by former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. The new measures, adopted on 5 October 2020, considerably limit the penalties applicable to a sea rescue organisation that fails to comply with instructions from the authorities – but do not abolish them (50,000 euros in fines and two years’ imprisonment, compared with one million euros and 10 years’ imprisonment previously). Although these legislative changes seem to relax Italian migration policy, six humanitarian vessels were still detained by the government as of 8 October.
The year 2020 marks a clear increase in arrivals via the central Mediterranean: according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 22,238 people landed in Italy between January and September, compared to 6,756 over the same period in 2019. On 15 September, a study published by the International Organisation for Migration pointed out that rescue operations in the Mediterranean contribute to reducing the number of deaths at sea, without significantly encouraging illegal immigration.