THE CREW of a charity-run refugee rescue ship disembarked over 230 people at a port in north-west Italy today.
The Geo Barents, a vessel run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), initially saved 69 people, including 25 minors, from an overcrowded rubber boat in international waters off the coast of Libya on Tuesday.
Prior to this first rescue that day, the EU-supported Libyan coastguard threatened to shoot at the Geo Barents when the crew spotted it intercepting a refugee boat.
Following the rescue, the Italian authorities ordered the Geo Barents to sail almost 700 nautical miles away to the northern Italian city of La Spezia — this would be like Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution being told to disembark people rescued in the waters off Guernsey in Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland.
Palermo and Pozzallo — cities on the Italian island of Sicily where NGO rescuers had been disembarking refugees before Italy’s far-right government issued a new decree ordering ships to sail directly to Italy following each rescue earlier this year — were about 410 nm and 216 nm away respectively.
On the following day, as the Geo Barents was making its way north, the activist-run distress hotline organisation Alarm Phone alerted the crew to a second refugee boat near its position.
On the way there, the ship came across a third boat in distress, and ended Wednesday with 237 refugees, including 87 kids, after the rescues were complete.
Nejma Banks, the Geo Barent’s cultural mediator, said yesterday that she could not help thinking about what would have happened if the Geo Barents followed the Italian authorities’ orders and ignored the refugees distress calls.
“Many of them have witnessed their friends drown,” Ms Banks said. Many of them have … had family members who died crossing the sea.
“If we’re not here, … these people would not have been here.”
Meanwhile, another rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, is making its way to the distant port of Carrara, northern Italy — 1,500 km (932 miles) away from where her crew saved the lives of 95 people in international waters off Libya on Wednesday.
SOS Mediterranee, the organisation that operates the ship, said following the rescue: “[The] Libyan coastguards arrived on scene during the operation and posed a severe risk to [our] teams and the survivors’ safety with dangerous manoeuvres.
“The survivors later reported that at least four people [had fallen] in the water before our arrival. We searched for them for hours, alone.
“Two Libyan patrol vessels in the area left without replying to our requests to support the search for the missing persons.”
UPDATE: January 30, 2023
SOS Mediterranee announced last night that the Ocean Viking had finally disembarked all survivors in Carrara.
“We are relieved that they reached safety but remain concerned by the designation of distant ports in Italy reducing [search-and-rescue] NGOs’ capacity to rescue lives at sea,” it said on social media last night.
Top image shows an MSF rescue worker carrying a young child [Pic: MSF]