Leading migrant rescue alliance falls apart under European governments' Covid-19 pressure

The NGOs have accused European governments of ignoring the plight of refugees in the face of the coronavirus pandemic

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 15, 2019 the Ocean Viking rescue ship sails off the coast of the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea, with in foreground the "Porta di Lampedusa", known as "The door of Europe", a monument to the migrants who have died in the Mediterranean, located at the point where Europe is the closest to Africa. Two French charities that have rescued thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean said on April 17, 2020 they could not continue their sea-based mission because of a disagreement related to the coronavirus. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, which have been rescuing migrants for four years most recently on the Ocean Viking ship, could not agree on how to handle the closure of Europe's ports and borders as a result of the pandemic.
 - Italy OUT
 / AFP / Alessandro SERRANO
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Two leading search and rescue organisations have ended their partnership in the Mediterranean as European nations close their borders to refugees and migrants in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee on Friday announced they would be ending their work together following disagreement over operations on the Ocean Viking rescue ship.

The two NGOs have worked together since 2016 rescuing more than 30,000 migrants and refugees from the central Mediterranean. The dangerous passage is used by migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe from North Africa.

MSF has said it terminated the partnership over disagreements over how to deal with pressure from European governments.


With Malta and Italy closing their ports to those rescued from the Mediterranean and Germany calling for NGOs to stop their rescue efforts, differences in how to manage the crisis came to a head.

In light of the measures, SOS Mediterranee decided the Ocean Viking would temporarily stand by in the port of Marseille while its teams worked towards resuming operations safely.

“Although both MSF and SOS Mediterranee agree on the vital need for our lifesaving work at sea, SOS Mediterranee felt further assurance from states regarding a place of safety was necessary before sailing. For MSF, the humanitarian imperative to act was immediate, with or without such assurances,” MSF said in a statement.

While SOS Mediterranee has said it hopes to resume its search and rescue operations, both NGOs have blasted European nations over their handling of the migrant crisis amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic.

“The call by Germany for NGOs to cease search and rescue activities, and decisions by Italy and Malta to close their ports to rescued people, are discriminatory and disproportionate,” MSF Operations Manager, Annemarie Loof said.

“At best, these are ill-informed and knee-jerk reactions; at worst, this is calculated and cynical leveraging of public health concerns to prohibit lifesaving operations, shutting the door to those in desperate need of protection.”

Frederic Penard, the Director of SOS Mediterranee Operations, said: “States and citizens have shown remarkable examples of cooperation during the Covid-19 crisis, expressed solidarity towards healthcare workers and provided assistance to those in need.

“The duty to rescue people drowning at sea needs to be fulfilled with the same sense of solidarity and care.”

Following the decision by Malta and Italy to ignore at least three boats in distress within their waters over the weekend, the EU’s human rights commissioner has called for rescues to take place in a timely manner.

“Despite the unprecedented challenges European countries face due to Covid-19, saving lives at sea and disembarking survivors in a safe port must continue,” Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said.