Hundreds of lives are being lost in the Central Mediterranean Sea while humanitarian NGO vessels are detained, warns Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), as the Geo Barents becomes the latest NGO ship to be held by Italian port authorities. MSF calls upon the Italian authorities to swiftly facilitate the release of our search and rescue ship, to enable its return to sea as soon as possible.
Following a 14-hour inspection in the port of Augusta, Sicily, Italy, on 2 July, our search and rescue ship the Geo Barents has been detained after 22 deficiencies were identified, 10 of which were allegedly grounds for the ship to be detained. While we are ready to make all necessary adjustments, we know that the inspection represents an opportunity for authorities to pursue political objectives under the guise of administrative procedures.
We launched the Geo Barents in May, fully equipped and certified to perform search and rescue activities, while adhering to the current rules and regulations put in place by the relevant maritime authorities.
“While port state controls are legitimate maritime procedures, developed to ensure the safety of navigation at sea, these inspections have been instrumentalised by state authorities to target NGO ships in a discriminatory way,” says Duccio Staderini, MSF SAR Representative. “We can therefore only conclude that this is politically motivated.”
“Inspections of NGO vessels in Italian ports are long and thorough, aiming at finding irregularities in order to prevent the ship from returning to sea to save lives,” adds Staderini. “We are faced with a crushing reality: while humanitarian NGO vessels are detained, lives continue to be needlessly lost in the Mediterranean.”
Over 10-12 June, our teams performed a series of rescues, rescuing 410 people who all showed signs of extreme exhaustion and various vulnerabilities. Among them were 101 unaccompanied children and 16 women, six of whom were travelling alone while one was pregnant. Most people were from war-torn countries such as Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Mali.
The detention of Geo Barents is yet further proof of administrative harassment by Italian authorities, and the punitive measures taken in order to block humanitarian operations at sea. From 2019 to date, the Italian authorities have conducted 16 Port State Controls on NGO rescue vessels, leading to administrative detention on 13 occasions. This equates to a total of 1,078 days of ships being blocked from saving lives at sea.
In addition to a series of minor irregularities that are easily rectifiable, the Italian authorities dispute the ship’s suitability to carry out systematic search and rescue activities and allege that the ship had too many people on board. However international law does not stipulate specific international classification for humanitarian rescue ships.
Such a disingenuous interpretation of maritime law disregards the fact that rescue operations, as per the duty of ship masters to provide assistance to people in distress at sea, are uncontrollable situations. Therefore, the number of people on board should not be taken into account for the purpose of ascertaining the compliance to other provisions of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.
While we mourn the victims of the latest shipwreck a few miles from the shores of Lampedusa, there are reports of another shipwreck off Tunisia, and bodies of women and children are washing up on Libyan shores. Since the beginning of 2021, at least 721 people have been confirmed dead or missing attempting to cross the world’s deadliest sea border.
With the aim of getting back to sea as soon as possible, MSF will submit a plan of action to rapidly rectify deficiencies reported by the Italian authorities, while urging the immediate lifting of the detention order of our ship in accordance with the applicable procedures. In case of refusal, we will consider undertaking all alternative initiatives to challenge this detention notice.
The Geo Barents is at sea because of the shameful absence of state-led search and rescue operations at the world’s deadliest sea border. European states have propped up the dangerous Libyan Coast Guard and blocked NGO efforts to fill the deadly gap left by them. We will take all necessary action to get back to sea to save lives as soon as possible.