Rescue ship relaunches into Mediterranean as states squabble

European collaboration of NGOs sends three ships on patrol as migrant numbers decline

A crew member stands on the upper deck of the migrant search and rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, operated by German NGO Sea-Watch, as it sets course for the search and rescue zone in the central Mediterranean after a technical stopover in Bonifacio, on the island of Corsica, France November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
Powered by automated translation

A migrant rescue vessel has set sail for a new mission in the Mediterranean amid a continuing dispute with the Italian government over the ultimate destination of desperate people plucked from the sea.

The Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3 was heading to an area off the North African coast on Friday after being held in a Maltese port on unspecified grounds for several months, according to officials from the charity.

Following a refit in Spain, the boat joined two other charity ships and a reconnaissance plane patrolling the waters to identify migrants suffering from difficulties in ramshackle boats launched from the coastline.

Some 109,000 people have arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Cyprus in 2018, which is likely to be the lowest annual total since the refugee crisis of 2015 when more than one million people fled war and poverty in the region via boats into Europe.

The UN said that more than 2,000 people have died this year attempting the hazardous crossing but charities have reported unprecedented difficulties in carrying out their operations in the face of anti-migration policies by governments in Europe.


Read more: 


Earlier this week, Italy called for the seizure of the Aquarius rescue ship alleging that it dumped tonnes of potentially toxic waste into its ports. Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the groups that operates the ship, denied any wrongdoing and described the Italian move as sinister.

The Aquarius has been involved in a long-running dispute with the Italian government over its rescue operations, notably in June when it was left stranded with more than 600 rescued people on board after both Italy and Malta refused to allow it to dock. It eventually sailed to Spain.

The Aquarius is currently docked in Marseille, France, after its Panamanian flag was revoked in September following alleged pressure from the Italians.

Italy’s deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, a hardline anti-immigrant politician, has repeatedly accused NGOs of providing a “taxi service” for migrants.

UN experts said on Wednesday that it was concerned about “continuing smear campaigns” against search and rescue teams. “The Italian government, among others, has made it nearly impossible for NGO ships to continue rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea,” according to experts cited by the UN Human Rights Commissioner.

The Sea-Watch 3, operated by a German-based charity, joins the Marie Jonio, a ship purchased by a crowd-funded appeal by a Mediterranean coalition of campaigners.

A spokesman for Sea-Watch said it was not clear where the ship would head if they found and rescued migrants from the sea.

It said that one in five migrants died while trying to cross the sea in September. “We are talking with governments to see what we can expect and we’re prepared to stay at sea for some time,” said Ruben Neugebauer. “This has been the case in recent rescues that no port has been assigned” by the maritime authorities.

Some 80 migrants were forced off of a cargo ship at the Libyan port of Misrata this week after they were picked up in the Mediterranean but returned to Libya from where there they had fled. Some of those on board told CNN that they had been tortured in Libya and had refused to disembark.