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Coronavirus outbreak should not serve as a pretext to stop the Ocean Viking, charity says

The NGO migrant rescue ship tells the Star ‘no quarantine of other ships or planes have been reported’

THE coronavirus outbreak in Italy should not act as a pretext to stop a refugee rescue ship from operating, the Ocean Viking’s crew said today after it was ordered to remain at anchor off the Italian coast and was the only vessel to be placed in quarantine.

The Ocean Viking, which is operated jointly by European charities Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, completed the rescue of 276 survivors yesterday when it disembarked them in the Italian port of Pozzallo in Sicily.

The survivors were rescued in three missions on February 18 and 19 in the central Mediterranean as they escaped the conflict in Libya. The ship was kept at sea for five days without word from any European government offering them a port of safety.

During that time the crew shared the migrants’ stories of the abuse they faced in Libya.

“I advise Europe and the European Union to come and rescue the people that are in Libya,” said Samson, one of the survivors rescued by the Ocean Viking in a recorded message.

“Even when you try to enter the water, they will use their boats and block you to take you back. When they take you back, they will not leave you. They will put you in prison for many months.

“Some people fell sick, some people died in the process, so that is why anyone who enters the sea doesn’t like to see the Libyan coastguard to come and rescue them. They would rather die in the water than to go back to Libya again.”

As the Ocean Viking docked in Pozzallo, the leader of Italy’s far-right political movement and former interior minister Matteo Salvini began a series of xenophobic tweets linking refugees with the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) in the country.

“The Interior Ministry authorised the landing in Sicily of almost 300 illegal immigrants brought by the usual foreign NGO ship,” Mr Salvini wrote.  

“Not even in the current serious national emergency situation does the government believe it should close its ports. I have no words.”

On Sunday evening after the rescue, the Italian authorities instructed the ship to stay at anchor outside Pozzallo and remain in quarantine for 14 days.

SOS Mediterranee’s deputy director of operations Louise Guillaumat told the Star that although they understood the country’s “concerns and prevention precautions,” they also noted that “no quarantine of other ships or planes have been reported.

“The Covid-19 outbreak should not result in unwarranted new public anxiety around those who are rescued at sea nor serve as a pretext to prevent the Ocean Viking from resuming its lifesaving work at sea.  

“In the coming days, [MSF] and SOS Mediterranee will seek further clarification from the Italian authorities in order to seek a better understanding of this decision.”

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