'Ocean Viking' returns to Mediterranean rescue mission

Charity praises Italy’s dramatic shift away from its anti-migrant policy as a ‘positive step’

The Ocean Viking rescue ship just off the coast of the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea on September 15, 2019. AFP
The Ocean Viking rescue ship just off the coast of the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea on September 15, 2019. AFP

The Mediterranean rescue ship Ocean Viking returned to its mission saving migrants trying to reach Europe mainly from North Africa, marking a dramatic change in Italy’s policy to migrants.

Hannah Bowman, a communications officer on board the vessel, told The National that the Ocean Viking was about to re-enter the rescue zone after leaving Lampedusa early on Monday morning.

Ms Bowman explained the vessel was making preparations before entering the search and rescue zone in the Mediterranean.

“At the moment, the SOS Méditerranee team are running some last-minute drills. As soon as we enter the zone we are ready for rescue."

The swift turn around for the ship, from which 82 migrants had disembarked on Saturday night, marks a dramatic shift in Italy’s policy to the rescue vessels.

For the past 14 months, vessels helping migrants in the Mediterranean had been forced into stand-offs lasting weeks with the Italian government while trying to enter ports in Sicily and Lampedusa.

Former Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who was removed from power in recent weeks, imposed fines of up to €1 million (Dh4.1m) against search and rescue ships operating between Europe and Africa.

The landing of migrants from the Ocean Viking, which is operated by Medecins sans Frontieres alongside SOS Mediterranee, may signal that Italy’s punitive stance against rescue vessels is over.

“There is a sense of relief," Ms Bowman said. "This is a more positive step towards a more humane approach to the reality as it is playing out in the central Mediterranean Sea.

“I think it is difficult to predict with any kind of certainty what is going to happen next.

“We can hope that this is, to some extent, the recognition of the need for an urgent and proactive European approach to what is happening in the central Mediterranean."

The end to Mr Salvini's hard line on the country’s migrant crisis has led to action across Europe.

He was blocked from forming a new right-wing government when his former coalition allies, the populist Five Star Movement, linked up with the centre-left Democratic Party to stop a snap election.

Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, is expected to address the migrant crisis with French President Emmanuel Macron in Rome on Wednesday.

European governments are trying to build a system that automatically distributes migrants across member states to ease the pressure on frontline states such as Malta and Italy.

Interior ministers from France and Germany will meet those from Italy and Malta in Valetta on September 23 to make progress on the deal before an EU summit in Luxembourg in October.

Italy is trying to deal with the migrant crisis on two fronts, striking deals with countries of origin in sub-Saharan Africa.

The country’s former Democratic Party prime minister, Matteo Renzi, said in a tweet that "a great Marshall plan for Africa” is needed to address the crisis, with “more co-operation, more investment”.

He was referring to the 1948 initiative where the US provided $12 billion in aid to help Western European countries to rebuild after the Second World War.

But Mr Salvini has continued to capitalise on the issue of migration and anti-migrant sentiment.

"Here we go, ports open without limits," he tweeted in response to the announcement that migrants had been allowed to leave the Ocean Viking.

"The new government is reopening the ports, Italy returns to being the refugee camp of Europe. Abusive ministers who hate Italians."

Updated: September 18, 2019 03:25 PM


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