Africa: MSF Is Determined to Return to Sea to Save Lives After Geo Barents Detained in Italy

press release

4 July 2021, Amsterdam/Augusta - Hundreds of lives are being lost in the central Mediterranean while humanitarian NGO vessels are detained, warns Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), as the Geo Barents becomes the latest NGO ship to be immobilised by Italian port authorities. MSF calls upon the Italian authorities to swiftly facilitate the release of its search and rescue ship, to enable its return to sea as soon as possible.

Following a 14-hour inspection in Augusta port, Sicily, on 2 July 2021, MSF's search and rescue ship the Geo Barents has been detained after 22 deficiencies were identified, 10 of which were allegedly grounds for the ship to be detained. While we are ready to make all necessary adjustments, we know that the inspection represents an opportunity for authorities to pursue political objectives under the guise of administrative procedures. MSF launched the Geo Barents in May, fully equipped and certified to perform search and rescue activities, while adhering to the current rules and regulations put in place by the relevant maritime authorities.

The teams performed a series of rescues over 10-12 June, rescuing 410 people who all showed signs of extreme exhaustion and various vulnerabilities. Among them were 16 women, of which six were travelling alone and one was pregnant, as well as 101 unaccompanied children. Most people were from war-torn countries, such as Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Mali.

The detention of Geo Barents is yet further proof of administrative harassment by Italian authorities, and the punitive measures taken in order to block humanitarian operations at sea. From 2019 to date, the Italian authorities have conducted 16 Port State Controls on NGO rescue vessels, leading to administrative detention on 13 occasions. This equates to a total of 1,078 days of ships blocked from saving lives at sea.

"While port state controls are legitimate maritime procedures, developed to ensure the safety of navigation at sea, these inspections have been instrumentalised by state authorities to target NGO ships in a discriminatory way. We can therefore only conclude that this is politically motivated," declares Duccio Staderini, MSF Search and Rescue (SAR) Representative. "Inspections of NGO vessels in Italian ports are long and thorough aiming at finding irregularities in order to prevent the ship from returning to sea to save lives. We are faced with a crushing reality: while humanitarian NGO vessels are detained, lives continue to be needlessly lost in the Mediterranean", adds Staderini.

In addition to a series of minor irregularities which are easily rectifiable, the Italian authorities dispute the ship's suitability to carry out systematic search and rescue activities and allege that the ship had too many people on board. However international law does not stipulate specific international classification for humanitarian rescue ships. Such a disingenuous interpretation of maritime law disregards the fact that rescue operations, as per the duty of ship masters to provide assistance to people in distress at sea, are considered force majeure situations. Therefore, the number of people on board should not be taken into account for the purpose of ascertaining the compliance to other provisions of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

While we mourn the victims of the last shipwreck a few miles from the shores of Lampedusa, there are reports of another shipwreck off Tunisia, and bodies of women and children are washing up on Libyan shores. In only six months, since the beginning of 2021, at least 721 people have been confirmed dead or missing attempting to cross the world's deadliest sea border.

With the aim of getting back to sea as soon as possible, MSF will submit a plan of action to rapidly rectify deficiencies reported by the Italian authorities, while urging the immediate lifting of the detention order of the ship in accordance with the applicable procedures. In case of refusal, MSF will consider undertaking all alternative initiatives to challenge this detention notice.

The Geo Barents is only at sea because of the shameful absence of state-led search and rescue capacity at the world's deadliest sea border. European states have propped up the dangerous Libyan Coast Guard and block NGO efforts to fill the deadly gap left by European states. MSF will take all necessary action to get back to sea to save lives as soon as possible.

Geo Barents has been issued a "rescue class notation" for 300 survivors. A chartering contract has been signed between MSF and the Norwegian shipping company Uksnøy, for the chartering of the vessel Geo Barents. The contract is registered and fully compliant with the highest standards of national, international and maritime regulations. The Geo Barents ship, which flies under Norwegian flag, meets all the technical and legal requirements to sail and perform search and rescue at sea. The ship has been fully equipped to perform search and rescue, with a medical clinic and recovery rooms.

Since summer 2019, 8 SAR NGO vessels including the Geo Barents have been detained (some of them, more than once) in the immediate aftermath of 16 port state controls in Italian ports on the grounds of similar "irregularities of technical and operational nature" and/or deficiencies such as to allegedly represent "a clear danger to safety, health or the environment" (the only case in which, pursuant to art. 19 of Directive 2009/16 / EC, the ship may be stopped until the deficiencies have been rectified).

At present the Ocean Viking of SOS Mediterranee is the only rescue ship operational in the central Mediterranean . 5 NGO SAR vessels (Sea-Watch 4, Sea-Watch 3, Sea-Eye 4, Louise Michel and, most recently, Geo Barents) are all currently under administrative detainment and blocked from resuming their life-saving activities. Meanwhile, following a two-month administrative detention in Pozzallo-Sicily, Open Arms of Proactiva was released on 25 June and is undergoing maintenance in Spain, hence is not currently conducting SAR operations at sea.

Not only European states are failing to provide search and rescue capacity, but are deliberately further stepping up the system of mass forced returns to Libya and collaborating with a Libyan coast guard which, once again, demonstrates violent behaviour shooting at a boat in distress with people on board in Maltese SRR. Since the beginning of 2021, a shocking amount of more than 14,751 refugees and migrants have been intercepted at sea and forced back to Libya - despite the fact that Libya is not Place of Safety for the purpose of disembarkation of people rescued at sea, according to international and maritime law.

Key figures

In less than 48 hours, on 10, 11 and 12 June 2021, the MSF chartered Geo Barents has rescued 410 persons in 7 non-stop rescues of boats in distress. They were rescued from unseaworthy rubber, wooden and fiberglass boats while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean. Out of the 410 rescued persons, there are: 12 women including a pregnant woman, 299 male adults / 99 children, of whom 91 non-accompanied, have been saved from drowning.

Since January 2021, at least 721 persons are confirmed dead or missing on the deadliest world central Mediterranean route.

During the first half of 2021, the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard has significantly stepped up the interception and forcible return of people trying to flee Libya, despite the fact that Libya is not Place of Safety for the purpose of disembarkation of people rescued at sea, according to international and maritime law. In only 6 months, the number of people intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and forcibly returned to Libya has surpassed the total number of people brought back during the entire year 2020 .

Men, women and children have been forcibly returned to arbitrary detention, for an indefinite time, in dangerous detention facilities characterised by physical abuse, sexual violence, exploitation, limited access to health care and deprivation of basic services as food, water, proper ventilation and light, overcrowding and little opportunity to maintain physical distancing in the context of a global pandemic. The sudden increase in the population in these inadequate facilities has further led to a rapid deterioration of living conditions.

Following repeated incidents of violence towards refugees and migrants held in two detention centres in Tripoli, Libya, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) felt obliged to temporarily suspend our activities in Mabani and Abu Salim detention centres. Since February this year, incidents of ill-treatment, physical abuse and violence against people held in these detention centres have increased steadily. Over the space of just one week, our teams witnessed first-hand, and received at least three reports of, violent incidents resulting in severe physical and psychological harm.

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