After a long absence, two humanitarian ships have just resumed their operations to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Relief missions by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been phased out since March because of government restrictions to curb the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic, raising fears of a safe tragedy. looks, in the shadow of the new coronavirus.
The first boat to return to sea is the Sea watch 3, from the German NGO Sea Watch. He left the Sicilian port of Messina on June 8, after three months of detention, to patrol the rescue area off the coast of Libya. The second is Italian: the Mare Jonio took the road to the central Mediterranean “To start a new mission”, announced the NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans on June 10.
Rescues in the Mediterranean have long suffered from the standoff over migration policy within the European Union (EU), but the confinement of Europe, the closing of borders, and above all the decision taken by Italy and Malta to close their ports in early April made it even more difficult to assist people in distress. “All maritime activities were disrupted during the crisis. The maintenance, the supply, the crew relief, were impacted, and the closing of the ports ran the risk of being blocked at sea for weeks “, explains Sophie Beau, CEO of SOS Mediterranean, whose boat, theOcean viking, immobilized in the port of Marseille since March 20, is preparing to leave.
The health crisis, a “pretext”
In this context, two boats had nevertheless continued their operations at sea, theAlan kurdi, from the German NGO Sea-Eye, andAita Mari, chartered by the Basque NGO SMH. But they were immobilized in early May by the Italian coast guard for reasons ” techniques “. The NGOs then denounced an unjustified maneuver intended to “Disrupt their rescue missions”. Similarly, the closing of the ports to the survivors was not ” not reasonable “, says Michaël Neuman, director of studies at the Médecins sans frontières (MSF) foundation. “It would have been possible to accept the landings by setting up tests, quarantines”, he criticizes, considering that the health crisis will have finally been “An excuse to further close the borders”.
At the same time, migratory movements have not weakened. Quite the contrary. “Departures from Tunisia between January and May have tripled compared to the same period last year; departures from the Libyan coasts have also increased ”, reports Céline Schmitt, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in France.
What has become of these migrants? According to the UNHCR, 186 people have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean since January. However, this figure does not include “invisible” shipwrecks. “Since there were no rescue ships, there were no more witnesses. We cannot know the real number of missing boats ”, laments Sophie Beau. On Thursday, June 11, fifty-two bodies were found off the coast of Tunisia, most of them migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, after their sinking clandestine boat sank on their way to Italy. This spring 2020 may well have been a dark spring for migrants.
Refoulements in Libya
NGOs speak of some boat arrivals on the coasts of southern Europe. But above all they report a large number of refoulements in Libya, a country where a new civil war has added to an already chaotic situation. “There were rescues at sea during the spring, but extremely repressive rescues, by the Libyan coast guards or commercial boats, which repatriated the migrants to Libya, where they are often arrested, detained and ill-treated”, laments Michaël Neuman of MSF.
The latter denounces in particular the practice of the Maltese authorities, which consisted in “Delegate the interception, rescue and refoulement of migrants to Libya by commercial vessels”, while States have the obligation, enshrined in international maritime law, to land the survivors “in a safe place”. Bombings, trafficking, slavery, torture, sexual violence … all the migrants who passed there tell of “Libyan hell”. “Libya is not a safe port”, keeps alerting the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya.
For its part, Malta – which finally authorized, on June 6, the disembarkation of 425 migrants stranded at sea, some of them for several weeks, on tourist boats -, criticizes the lack of European solidarity to take charge of these migrants. It is true that the pandemic has shattered the (already timid) mechanism for distributing migrants between European countries after their landing, ratified in Valletta in September 2019.
In May, UNHCR called on European states to “More coordination, solidarity and sharing of responsibilities in the face of the growing movements of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean”, recalling that saving lives was “A humanitarian imperative”, a “Obligation under international law”, and that solutions existed to both protect public health in his country and to welcome refugees.