Meanwhile, activists urge merchant ship not to hand over refugees to Libyan Coastguard
EVERY minute in which the authorities fail to allow 410 refugees onboard a charity rescue ship to come ashore is a minute too long, a member of the crew told The Civil Fleet today.
The Geo Barents, a rescue ship run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has been waiting for a response from the Maltese and Italian authorities to respond to their calls for a port to disembark the rescued since Saturday.
The ship carried out its first three rescued last Thursday and Friday in international waters off the coast of Libya. During the first operation, MSF said the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard attempted to intimidate and threaten the crew over the radio.
Last Friday, the ship carried out four rescue operations inside Malta’s search-and-rescue (SAR) zone, a section of the central Mediterranean in which the island nation is legally responsible under international law to coordinate rescues. It hasn’t done so since closing its ports to NGO rescuers last year.
Barbara Deck, MSF’s project coordinator on board the Geo Barents, told The Civil Fleet today that when they asked the Maltese maritime authorities for a place of safety on Saturday, they received “a very clear and definitive no.”
“We’re in a standby position at the moment in between Italy and Malta, navigating slowly, waiting for a response from the competent authorities,” Ms Deck said.
“We conducted out first rescue five days ago, and some of the survivors told us they were already at sea for several days. So, to be quite frank, any minute or hour longer is already too long.
“I can’t guess how long we can expect to be waiting here. I hope it’s not much longer. As rescue is not considered complete until the survivors are disembarked in a place of safety. So any further delay in an allocation in a place of safety would be unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, there was little sign of rescue for about 470 people still adrift in the central Mediterranean when The Civil Fleet published this story — and it appeared a merchant ship was about to hand over 200 people to the Libyan Coastguard.
The activist-run distress hotline network Alarm Phone announced this morning that there were five boats in need of help. Three of them — carrying about 200, 75, and 29 people respectfully — were in international waters.
The others — one carrying about 90, the other 80 — were well within Malta’s SAR zone.
As for the wooden boat carrying 200 people, Alarm Phone said this morning: “Their engine is broken, and they can’t move. We alerted authorities six hours ago, in vain. The so-called Libyan Coastguard is not reachable, others deny responsibility. Rescue them now.”
Then this afternoon Alarm Phone issued an update, saying: “Eleven hours after the authorities were informed, only the merchant vessel Vos Triton came to rescue…
“After three days at sea, the survivors need medical assistance and disembarkation at a safe harbour in Europe. Libya is not a place of safety!”
Tracking Vos Triton online, Alarm Phone’s fears appeared to come true, as the ship began heading away from the safety of Europe.
“The Vos Triton is now heading south! This would be a pushback by proxy, in violation of international human rights and asylum law! Libya is neither a safe country nor a place of safety! Bring them to Europe!”
Elsewhere, the crew on board the Seabird — a reconnaissance plan operated by refugee rescue organisation Sea Watch — overheard on the radio that the merchant vessel planned to handover the rescued to the Libyan Coastguard.
Sea Watch explained what they witnessed next in a series of posts on Twitter:
“The supply ship [Vos Triton] had rescued the people only after our Seabird was on the scene and put pressure on it. Previously, the Vos Triton had observed the case but did not intervene, although several people were already trying to swim to the ship.
“The so-called Libyan Coastguard has reached the Vos Triton. Our Seabird is on the scene and documenting what is happening. We fear that we will now have to witness an illegal repatriation.
“We are in great concern for the people on board and appeal to the Vos Triton to bring the people to a place of safety instead of engaging in an illegal push-back. The European authorities must assign a safe port to the Vos Triton!”
For updates on the situation, follow @seawatch_intl and @alarm_phone.
The Civil Fleet will have more on the story tomorrow.