In most of Europe’s cities, citizens and non-citizens alike are living under lockdown. The Covid-19 pandemic affecting the world, and first of all Europe, has led to drastic measures being implemented that restrict the freedom of individuals.
At the same time, European borders have closed to travellers, as well as to those seeking refuge in Europe, or more simply fleeing violence and detention in Libya.
On 23 February, the search and rescue ship Ocean Viking, operated jointly by Medecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee, was placed in quarantine by Italy immediately after the 276 passengers on board had disembarked and been quarantined on land.
Two weeks later, Ocean Viking was allowed to return to sea and has since been stationed in its home port of Marseille. Since then, only one search and rescue ship – Alan Kurdi, operated by German organisation Sea-Eye – has gone to sea. Very quickly, Alan Kurdi carried out two rescue operations, taking on board 150 people.
After a few days of wandering at sea, and after the Italian government’s 7 April decision that its ports would remain closed to search and rescue ships for health reasons, Rome authorised the transfer of the rescued passengers to another ship, where they were put in quarantine, at the end of which their fate is still uncertain.
The Italian government is not alone in taking measures which affect the capacity of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, at a time when they are as needed as ever.
In a letter dated 6 April, the German government asked German search and rescue NGOs not to return to sea and recalled those already at sea. On 11 April, the Maltese government officially followed Italy’s lead in closing its ports to search and rescue ships.
These closures and quarantine measures are largely discriminatory and are completely disproportionate to the stated objectives.
They are also in contradiction to the Commission’s proposal, endorsed by the EU Council on 17 March, to allow certain exceptions to the restrictions on travel to the EU: specifically healthcare professionals, humanitarian workers in the course of their duties and people in need of international protection or humanitarian assistance.
The UNHCR, too, reiterated that the restrictive measures resulting from the pandemic should not preclude international protection and humanitarian assistance, including search and rescue at sea.
It is impossible to see how a concrete threat to public safety can be inferred from a purely hypothetical assumption – the potential presence of infected people on board.
Is it really acceptable that such a significant measure, capable of affecting the fundamental rights of people rescued at sea, should be imposed on a purely preventive basis?
Once people are disembarked, there is nothing to stop preventive measures being applied, just as they would for any other person returning to European territory, provided that the measures are compatible with the rescued people’s requests for protection.
Quarantine itself can be a legitimate measure – in fact, MSF has offered to help set up quarantine facilities in Sicily for people rescued at sea.
But at the same time, we are alarmed by the imposition of mass quarantine on migrants and asylum seekers in Italy and Greece in conditions which risk their health.
People in quarantine must have the space to be able to practice physical distancing; they must have access to food, water, soap and healthcare. And they should be tested for Covid-19.
Keeping people together in substandard conditions, where the healthy are bound to become sick – either with Covid-19 or with something else – is not an acceptable public health response.
We have all seen the rates of virus transmission on cruise ships. Mass quarantine is an entirely unnecessary measure when there are other options available.
The shutting of Italy and Malta’s ports to people rescued at sea has already had dramatic consequences, in a context where search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean has already been weakened so far that it now relies almost exclusively on the Libyan coastguard.
In recent days, at least three boats in distress, carrying more than 200 people from Libya, were left without assistance.
Two of the three boats eventually reached the coast of Sicily on their own, while the fate of the last boat remains unknown.
The passengers of a fourth boat were rescued by the Spanish ship Aita Mari; after another long stand-off at sea, its 36 passengers were transferred onto an Italian ferry.
For days, the location at sea of these small boats packed with desperate people were known to Europeans, and yet they did nothing.
In Libya, assistance to migrants and asylum seekers has decreased significantly as a result both of the pandemic and the intensified fighting.
There has been a drastic reduction in the services offered to them by UN agencies and NGOs, including MSF, which has been forced to reduce its teams and restrict its movements.
Already half-hearted protection measures, such as evacuations organised by the UNHCR and 'humanitarian voluntary repatriations' by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), are no longer happening.
On 17 April, MSF announced its separation from its partner organisation, SOS Mediterranee, citing the group’s decision to suspend its search and rescue operations in light of the inextricable difficulties of operating at sea.
The result of ports being shut to search and rescue vessels, and of Europe abandoning all rescue efforts, is that people are dying. Condemning people to death as a public health measure is a nonsense and must be overturned.
Just as ambulances in Europe continue to carry the sick and injured to emergency rooms despite public health lockdown policies, and just as essential services are maintained, so should search and rescue vessels continue to operate as an emergency lifesaving measure, with rescued people allowed to disembark at the nearest place of safety.
Christos Christou is the International President of Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders