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Europe's criminalisation of NGO refugee rescuers reaches ‘new peak’ after fifth ship detained in Italy

THE criminalisation of civil refugee rescue operations in the Mediterranean has reached “another peak,” rescuers warned this weekend after the Italian port authorities banned another NGO ship from leaving port.

The Sea Watch 4 became the fifth NGO rescue ship in as many months to be placed under an administrative blockade on the Italian island of Sicily on Saturday, following an 11-hour inspection by the Italian coastguard.

The inspectors claimed the ship — which completed the rescue of 353 people earlier this month and finished a two-week quarantine last Friday — had too many life jackets on board, an unsuitable sewage system for the number of people rescued, and the wrong registration for saving lives.

Since closing its ports to refugees rescued on NGO ships in April following the outbreak of Covid-19, Italian port authorities have banned the Alan Kurdi, Aita Mari, Sea Watch 3 and Ocean Viking rescue ships from leaving port on similar grounds.

Inigo Mijangos, chairman of the Basque charity Humanitarian Maritime Rescue, told the Star in June that one of the 51 deficiencies the inspectors claimed they found on the Aita Mari was “a small packet of expired jam.”

The Aita Mari and Alan Kurdi were released in June after spending over a month in Sicily. The Sea Watch 3 and Ocean Viking have remained in port on the island since July.

Sea Watch — one of the three organisations operating the Sea Watch 4 alongside Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and United4Rescue — said today that the ship meets all the safety requirements set by the authorities in Germany, under whose flag it sails, in July.

These inspections on the civil refugee rescue ships, the German charity said today, “are politically motivated” and aimed at stopping “rescue operations in the central Mediterranean.”

On September 4 the Italian aviation authorities also grounded Sea Watch’s reconnaissance aircraft Moonbird, a move the charity said at the time was done because “the European Union wants to make sure that no-one knows the truth about what happens in the central Mediterranean.”

With the blockade of the Sea Watch 4, the charity said today, “the criminalisation of sea rescue operations reaches another peak. This event shows once again that European states are prepared to do everything in their power to prevent the rescue of human lives.

“People dying in the central Mediterranean are the result of European policies of closed borders and the arbitrary blockade of civilian actors.”

MSF’s operational manager for search and rescue Ellen van der Velden accused the Italian authorities of “playing dirty” and attempting to incriminate “humanitarian organisations who are doing nothing more than trying to save lives at sea as per international maritime law.”

“Once a rescue ship enters an Italian port, it is subjected to a lengthy and overzealous inspection until some insignificant irregularities are found,” Ms van der Velden said today.

“It took 11 hours of inspection on the Sea Watch 4 [yesterday] to come up with sufficient infractions to prevent the ship from sailing out of the port of Palermo.

“We are accused of ‘systematically’ saving people, criticised for having too many life jackets on board and scrutinised over the sewage system. Meanwhile the obligation for every ship to provide assistance to boats in distress is completely disregarded.

“This is the Italian authorities playing dirty, attempting to incriminate and stop humanitarian organisations who are doing nothing more than trying to save lives at sea as per international maritime law.

“While simultaneously tearing up the rule book on their own obligations, chiefly to provide assistance to boats in distress. And this with the assent, if not full endorsement, of European states including the UK.”

Barbara Deck, MSF’s medical project co-ordinator on board Sea Watch 4, said: “The violent reality people have escaped, and the dangers of the journey they are forced to take in order to seek safety, was evidenced by the wounds we treated.

“Yet, from the boy now deaf as result of a punch to the head by armed men, to the father who carries the scars of melted plastic branded on his skin while in Libya, the resilience we witnessed was humbling.

“As we treat our patients on board, it is devastating to know that European governments are doing everything they can to prevent these vulnerable people from being provided with this lifesaving care.”

Meanwhile, the Alan Kurdi, which returned to the central Mediterranean last week, is currently carrying 133 rescued refugees, including a five-month-old child.

So far Italy, Malta, Libya and Germany have not responded to the Alan Kurdi’s urgent calls for a port to disembark the rescued. 

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