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THE European maritime authorities are ducking their responsibility for refugees crossing the Mediterranean and, worse, are referring NGO rescue ships to “criminal groups,” the refugee rescue fleet has told the Star.
Two NGO-operated ships, the Alan Kurdi and the Ocean Viking, saved over 100 people from unseaworthy boats during three separate missions in the central Mediterranean last Thursday after the refugees had fled human rights abuses in Libya.
Both ships contacted the Libyan maritime authorities, as international law dictates, but their calls were ignored.
Maltese and Italian authorities have been asked to provide the rescue ships with a port of safety, but none had been offered by the time the Star went to press.
Conditions on board the Alan Kurdi — operated by German charity Sea Eye and named after a three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy whose dead body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 — have deteriorated dramatically since it rescued 84 people last week.
“It’s insane. No-one is taking responsibility for this,” Sea Eye’s head of communication Julian Pahlke told the Star.
“Four people collapsed on board the ship on Sunday. Two people have collapsed today. A woman tried to kill herself on Saturday by jumping overboard. She was evacuated to Malta.
“Everyone on board is exhausted. It’s cold and it’s windy and people are sleeping on deck covered in blankets. Our team is so stressed that it’s getting hard for them to look after the rescued.”
When the Alan Kurdi’s crew contacted the maritime rescue co-ordination centres in Malta, Rome and even Bremen in Germany, the latter suggested that the ship should contact the Libyan coastguard.
“We are not going to do that,” Mr Pahlke said. “We are not going to break international law by handing refugees over to criminal groups and back to a war zone.”
The Ocean Viking — jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) — was in international waters between Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa with 60 refugees on board as the Star went to press. Its crew also refused to break international law.
“Libya cannot be considered a place of safety,” SOS Mediterranee director of operations Frederic Penard told the Star.
“Everybody says this every day, including European leaders and their governments. The situation in the country is very well documented.
“But at the same time, European leaders refuse to accept responsibility for the co-ordination of some of our cases, including the designation of a port of safety, and they keep referring us back to the Libyan coastguard, which is unable to provide a place of safety because their country is not safe.
“The European Union’s policies here are grossly incoherent. On the one hand, they clearly acknowledge that the situation in Libya is a problem, which clearly disqualifies the country as being safe. But on the other hand they refuse to abide by international maritime conventions.”
The EU withdrew all of its search and rescue ships in April after pressure from Italy’s then far-right populist coalition government. Since then, a small number of NGO ships have been the only vessels in the Mediterranean carrying out the humanitarian work formerly done by the bloc.
Many NGO activists have been persecuted for their efforts and charities such as Sea Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Mission Lifeline and Jugend Rettet have had their ships seized by the Italian and Maltese authorities.
MSF UK humanitarian representative Liz Harding warned that despite the EU’s extremely limited dedicated search and rescue presence in the Mediterranean, people continue to attempt to cross the world’s deadliest migration route.
Ms Harding told the Star: “MSF calls on EU member states, including the UK, to urgently provide proactive and sufficient search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as to end punitive actions against NGOs trying to provide life-saving assistance.
“Additionally, there must be sustainable, reliable and predictable disembarkation mechanism for survivors in safe places where they will be treated humanely and will be able to seek asylum. Libya is not, and cannot be considered, a place of safety.”
You can follow the Star’s coverage of the civil refugee rescue fleet here: mstar.link/CivilFleet.
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