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Rescuers launch legal action against Italy’s far-right government after it refuses to allow all survivors to come ashore

Humanity 1 and Geo Barents left waiting in port with survivors still on board as over 300 refugees remain at sea on the Rise Above and Ocean Viking

AN ACTIVIST-RUN search-and-rescue organisation announced today that it is taking legal action again the Italian government after it refused to allow 35 people rescued in the Mediterranean to come ashore.

The crew of SOS Humanity‘s ship, the Humanity 1, saved the lives of 180 people from unseaworthy boats as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean between October 23 and 26.

The ship then was forced to wait off the coast of Italy for days — as were fellow rescue ships Geo Barents, Ocean Viking and Rise Above, carrying 576, 234, and 95 respectively — after the authorities refused to allow the rescued to come ashore.


The International Law of the Sea requires all maritime authorities, as well as captains of all types of vessels, to come to the aid of anyone in distress at sea and to take them to the nearest port of safety.

In recent years, however, the Maltese authorities have refused to do this. Italy had been allowing people to come ashore eventually, after making their rescuers wait at sea for days, until the far-right returned to power last month.


A child suffering from severe abdominal pain was evacuated from the Humanity 1 and taken to Italy during this protracted wait.

Then, on Saturday, after 13 days at sea, the Humanity 1 was finally given permission to enter the port of Catania, on the Italian island of Sicily.

Over the weekend, representatives from Italy’s Ministry of Health selected 144 of the 179 survivors to come ashore. The authorities deemed the remaining 36 people as “healthy,” and refused to allow them to leave the ship.

“The Italian authorities basically just looked at them and said, ‘You’re an adult, you’re obviously not unhealthy’, so that’s why they’re kept on our ship,” SOS Humanity’s head of operations Till Rummenhohl told reporters today.

“But it doesn’t really matter what their status is, or how sick they are. They are asylum seekers, they are seeking protection.

“They constantly fear being pushed back [to Libya]. So they are full of uncertainty, they don’t know what is happening to them. They have the human right to seek international protection.”

After being updated on the situation, one of the survivors collapsed, SOS Humanity said, and had to be picked up by an ambulance.

Thirty-five survivors remain on board the Humanity 1 [Pic: Max Cavallari / SOS Humanity]

Yesterday, the Italian government told the ship to leave port, effectively forcing the rescued back out to sea.

However, the Humanity 1’s captain Joachim refused, saying: “It is my duty to complete the rescue of people in distress by disembarking all survivors in the port of Catania as a safe place. I cannot leave the port until all survivors rescued from distress at sea have disembarked.”

SOS Humanity’s human rights advocacy officer Mirka Schafer described the Italian government’s actions today as a violation of international and Italian law.

“Under international law, a search-and-rescue operation is concluded with the disembarkation of the survivors in a place of safety,” Ms Schafer said.

“It is unlawful to only allow a selected few of the survivors to disembark.

“Furthermore, to reject all the others outside the national territorial waters constitutes a form of collective refoulement and thus violates both the European Convention on Human Rights and the non-refoulement principle of the Geneva Refugee Convention.”

Trouble on the Geo Barents

A survivor and crew member share a hug while disembarking from the Geo Barents [Pic: Doctors Without Borders]

THREE people jumped overboard from the Geo Barents rescue ship this afternoon, its operators Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said today.

The ship’s crew saved the lives of 576 people inside Malta’s search-and-rescue zone between October 27 and 29.

On Saturday, the Geo Barents was also authorised to enter the port at Catania. But, again, the authorities would only allow the sick and injured to leave, leaving 214 survivors still on board the ship.

Caroline Willemen, the Geo Barents’ project coordinator, said in a video message today that the survivor still on board do not understand why they are not allowed to disembark, which is their right to do.

“Everyone here is a survivor of a rescue operation and should be disembarked in a place of safety,” she said.

“Yesterday evening we had to do an urgent medical evacuation of somebody by ambulance who was taken to hospital.

“We are treating several people for panic attacks. And people are tired, angry and need to get off right now.”

Still at sea

Survivors on board the Ocean Viking wait for news of dry land [Pic: Camille Martin Juan / SOS Mediterranee]

MEANWHILE, two other NGO rescue ships remain at sea: Mission Lifeline‘s Rise Above and SOS Mediterranee‘s Ocean Viking.

The Rise Above saved 95 people from three wooden boats in the central Mediterranean last week.

Two people with medical emergencies were evacuated from the ship on November 5. Four others were evacuated last night.

Mission Lifeline said today that the mood on the Rise Above was depressed.

“People are exhausted, children have colds, are mentally battered and need close contact. Last night was cold.

“Our doctors are trying to cheer up and feed the children with all available means and have handed out baby milk today because the little ones cannot tolerate the ‘normal’ food. That way they get at least some nutrients.

“We demand: A safe harbour now!”

Mission Lifeline announced this evening that the Italian authorities have assigned the Rise Above with the port in Reggio Calabria in Southern Italy.

The Ocean Viking carried out its first rescue mission 17 days ago. SOS Mediterranee warned yesterday that the 234 survivors on deck are struggling to sleep as the extreme weather rocks the ship.

“This is the longest time ever spent by survivors on board the Ocean Viking,” SOS Mediterranee said.

“Their physical and mental health is getting worse. They urgently need a place of safety now.”


Top image shows a member of the Rise Above’s crew comforting young children aboard the rescue ship [Pic: @sev_lionne / Mission Lifeline]

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Published by Ben Cowles

Is a journalist and podcaster

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