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Migrant rescuers defiant in face of Italy crackdown

By AFP - May 21,2024 - Last updated at May 21,2024

Volunteers take care of migrants onboard the Ocean Viking rescue ship of European maritime-humanitarian organisation ‘SOS Mediterranee’ following a rescue operation off Malta, early on Monday (AFP photo)

ABOARD THE OCEAN VIKING — Saving lives is more difficult than ever, but rescuers are adamant that the Italian government’s crackdown on charity ships will not stop them from helping migrants who run into trouble crossing the Mediterranean.

Rome has brought in a slew of rules to curb the activities of non-governmental (NGO) ships accused of being a pull factor for migrants — from limiting the number of rescues to assigning them distant ports.

“All these regulations, laws, are just another attempt to complicate more and criminalise the work done by the NGOs,” said Salvador, 37, an Argentinian rescuer onboard the Ocean Viking.

The red and white ship, formerly a supply vessel for oil rigs that is now run as a rescue vessel by SOS Mediterranee, left the Italian port of Syracuse in southern Sicily on Sunday for its latest mission.

Since coming to power in 2022, far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vowed to dramatically slash the number of people crossing by boat from the coast of North Africa.

Under a law adopted at the start of 2023, charity ships are obliged to travel “without delay” to port as soon as their first rescue is complete — even if they become aware of other migrants in difficulty.

“You can go to a rescue, you take 10 people, and then you have to travel four or five days to disembark them,” despite the Ocean Viking being able to carry “at least 400 people” at a time, Salvador told AFP.

‘Frustrating’

In recent months, the Italian coast guard has assigned increasingly distant ports to ships, sometimes in difficult weather conditions, to the detriment of vulnerable migrants’ physical and mental health.

Going to far-off ports “increases the amount of fuel, and also the supplies” needed for those rescued, which “increases operational costs and also takes ships away” from where they are needed, Salvador said.

In 2023, the Ocean Viking travelled more than 21,000 additional kilometres to reach 13 distant ports, rather than disembarking in Sicily. That is estimated to have cost an extra 500,000 euros ($543,000) in fuel.

It is “frustrating” to be made “less effective”, Salvador said, his long black hair tied back out of the wind.

Those who break the law are fined up to 10,000 euros and their ships can be seized for 20 days — a punishment meted out to the Ocean Viking in February.

Repeat offenders risk their ships being confiscated permanently.

Charity crews face a tough choice: Comply with the Italian authorities by leaving migrant boats adrift despite the risk that people could die, or disobey and face having their ships impounded.

“In 20 days, we could save 100, 200 or even 400 people,” says Daniel Auerbacher, head of operations at SOS Mediterranee.

When the Ocean Viking goes from one rescue to the next, it is “not because we want to disobey orders, but because international law takes precedence. And it requires us to alter our course, to go towards the ship in distress”, he said.

‘Ethical call’

Rescue charities insist they are playing an essential role in preventing drownings as disasters unfold.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that people can find it an illegal or illicit activity to actually take people from the water,” said Spanish rescuer David.

He fiercely rebuts the critique that charity ships play into the hands of people smugglers.

“I am definitely not smuggling. I am far away from home, I am spending my time at sea, getting burned by the sun, getting seasickness... I could be comfortably sitting on my couch,” he said wearily.

Rescuing is becoming increasingly difficult.

In the latest tightening of screws, Italy’s civil aviation authority this month banned surveillance aeroplanes used by charities to spot migrant boats from Sicilian airports.

And the European Union recently adopted a vast reform toughening immigration control at its borders.

But none of that will stop David from answering what he sees as “an ethical call” to save lives.

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