One of two NGOs behind a new migrant rescue vessel launching missions in the Mediterranean later this month has said it expects the ship to be impounded.
The NGOs Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and Sea-Watch have announced they would resume migrant rescues in the Mediterranean before the middle of August on board the Sea-Watch 4.
No rescue vessels have operated in the sea between Europe and North Africa since the Ocean Viking, now run solely by SOS Mediterranee, docked in Italy last month.
The humanitarian organisations operating the ships have said European governments have been using the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to stymie rescue missions.
Malta and Italy have said their ports are unsafe for incoming migrants because of the public health emergency.
MSF humanitarian affairs adviser Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui told The National she was "confident" and "expected" that the new vessel, Sea-Watch 4, would be blocked from carrying out its mission.
“We know that since February, the four NGO ships that have been involved in rescue operations … were all impounded,” Ms Sahraoui explained.
The reasoning for this, she said, was “surreal” and “grotesque”.
On top of the threat of Covid-19, aid organisations and charities have reported a series of nuisance inspections from the Italian coastguard that has obstructed the work of the central Mediterranean’s crucial life-saving vessels.
The obstructions come during the seasonal spike in Mediterranean crossings as more illegal immigrants and refugees attempt to reach Europe from North Africa in fairer summer weather.
SOS Mediterranee has characterised the decision to detain the Ocean Viking for an inspection as "a blatant administrative harassment manoeuvre".
As the tentative date for the launch of Sea-Watch 4 was announced Oliver Behn, MSF director of operations, decried the inaction of authorities in Europe and said the NGO had the capacity to ensure Covid-19 was dealt with properly.
“No human being should be left to drown, to sink beneath the waves,” Mr Behn said. “No human being should be forced to endure torture and suffering. Yet this is the consequence of criminal dereliction of duty by European governments.
“As a medical humanitarian organisation, we at MSF acknowledge the challenges presented by Covid-19. However, we see that recent state measures to discourage or block life-saving activities in Mediterranean – cloaked in public-health rhetoric – are reckless and politically motivated,” he said.
Aside from the treacherous conditions in the central Mediterranean, where 100,000 migrants attempted to cross from North Africa to Europe last year and more than 1,200 died in the attempt, the NGOs have also hit out at the desperate conditions in Libya where the majority of the illegal immigrants are returned.
“Libya is defined as categorically unsafe for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers by international and European institutions, including the UN, IOM and European Commission," MSF said in a statement.
In April, MSF and SOS Mediterranee abandoned a four-year collaboration that had rescued thousands of migrants over a disagreement regarding how best to proceed amid the coronavirus.
MSF's new partner, Sea-Watch, made headlines last year when Italy arrested Carola Rackete, the German captain of the Sea-Watch 3, for forcibly docking on the island of Lampedusa with dozens of migrants on board despite being refused permission.
The Sea-Watch 4, the groups said, was bought with backing from United4Rescue, a humanitarian group funded by the German Protestant Church.