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Detaining of fifth search and rescue ship in five months condemns people to die at sea

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On the morning of September 17th, as Open Arms awaited instructions from authorities regarding the disembarkation of the 275 survivors rescued in the Mediterranean sea, more than 70 people jumped into the water in desperation. The Sea-Watch 4 was close by, at anchor outside the port of Palermo, and immediately responded by launching three RHIBs to provide assistance. MSF and Sea-Watch crews remained on scene until the situation stabilised.

 

Misuse of maritime law is providing a smoke-screen for a political decision to prevent rescue ships from saving lives in the Mediterranean, declares Médecins Sans Frontières, as the Sea-Watch 4 becomes the fifth NGO ship to be immobilised by Italian port authorities in less than five months.

During its maiden lifesaving voyage, Sea-Watch 4 rescued 354 people. Among them were 227 men, as well as 98 unaccompanied teenagers, families, women travelling alone, people with disabilities, pregnant mothers and children – the youngest less than two years old. The MSF medical team on board provided 551 consultations, treating many people for fuel exposure and intoxication, caused by fumes from the petrol used to power the engines and the corrosive cocktail of saltwater mixed with gasoline. One teenager sustained chemical burns so severe he had to be medically evacuated.

“The violent reality people have escaped, and the dangers of the journey they are forced to take in order to seek safety, was evidenced by the wounds we treated,” said Barbara Deck, MSF medical project coordinator on board. “Yet, from the boy now deaf as result of a punch to the head by armed men, to the father who carries the scars of melted plastic branded on his skin while in Libya, the resilience we witnessed was humbling. As we treat our patients on board, it is devastating to know that European governments are doing everything they can to prevent these vulnerable people from being provided with this lifesaving care.”

As we treat our patients on board, it is devastating to know that European governments are doing everything they can to prevent these vulnerable people from being provided with this lifesaving care.BARBARA DECK, MSF MEDICAL PROJECT COORDINATOR ON BOARD

The decision by the Italian authorities to detain Sea-Watch 4 is all the more reprehensible given that the ship was instructed by the Maltese authorities to take on board more people from the search and rescue ship Louise Michel after it was forced to call for help while in the Maltese search and rescue region. At the same time Italian coast guard vessels were on scene and evacuated 50 vulnerable people from the over 200 people onboard.

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The Sea-Watch 4 is only at sea because of the absence of state-led search and rescue capacity at the world’s deadliest sea border. MSF and other NGOs are simply trying to fill the deadly gap left by European states. August registered the highest number of fatalities in the central Mediterranean so far this year, with 111 people reported dead or missing. In the most recent shipwreck off the Libyan coast on 15 September, over 20 people were reported missing presumed dead and in another shipwreck on 17 August, 45 migrants and refugees died bringing the overall total for this year to 379.

Legitimate maritime procedures are being manipulated and abused by Italian authorities. Inspections of NGO vessels have become a way to block search and rescue efforts.ELLEN VAN DER VELDEN, MSF OPERATIONAL MANAGER FOR SEARCH AND RESCUE.

“Once a rescue ship enters an Italian port, it is subjected to a lengthy and overzealous inspection until some insignificant irregularities are found. It took 11 hours of inspection on the Sea-Watch 4 yesterday to come up with sufficient infractions to prevent the ship from sailing out of the port of Palermo,” said Ellen van der Velden, MSF operational manager for Search and Rescue.

“We are accused of “systematically” saving people,criticised for having too many life jackets on board and scrutinised over the sewage system. Meanwhile the obligation for every ship to provide assistance to boats in distress is completely disregarded. This is the Italian authorities playing dirty, attempting to incriminate and stop humanitarian organisations who are doing nothing more than trying to save lives at sea as per international maritime law, while tearing up the rule-book on their own obligations, chiefly to provide assistance to boats in distress. And this with the assent, if not full endorsement, of European states,” added van der Velden.

Not only are European states are failing to provide search and rescue capacity, but they have co-opted the Libyan coast guard to police the Central Mediterranean. Since the beginning of 2020, almost 8,000 refugees and migrants have been intercepted at sea and forced back to Libya – a 32 per cent increase in comparison with the same period last year – as the number of people held in official detention centres in the country continues to grow. Despite the fact that we know Libya is not a safe place.

READ  Mediterranean deaths, Somali unrest, and the cost of coronavirus: The Cheat Sheet

Across the Mediterranean, from preventing rescues at sea to purposely holding people in  Moria refugee camp, the EUs current approach to migration is to systematically trap, push back and abandon people; whether that is leaving them to die at sea or trapping thousands of men, women and children in appalling conditions in camps on the Greek islands. As the European Union heralds its new pact on migration set to be launched on 23 September, organisations such as MSF are dealing with the human cost of such inhumane policies. This latest move by the Italian authorities suggests this pact will manifest more of the same, casting a shadow on the pledge even before it is made public.

EU member states are disregarding their legal and moral duty to save lives, opting instead to impose abusively bureaucratic and administrative measures on yet another lifesaving ship. A decision to further decimate already limited search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean will have devastating consequences for those in desperate need of assistance and inevitably result in more lives lost.

Sea-Watch 4 must urgently be released so that it can recommence life-saving search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean and the ongoing attacks on NGO’s trying to provide assistance to desperate people must stop.

Background: Five NGO rescue ships blocked in five months

Sea-Watch 4 is the fifth ship to be detained by Italian authorities in the last five months. After each one of the ships was subjected to a Port State Control, the Italian coast guard announced it had discovered “irregularities of a technical and operational nature to the extent that they risk compromising not only the safety of the crew but also of those who have been or could be rescued” on all five ships.

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On 5 May, the German-flagged ship Alan Kurdi operated by Sea-Eye was the first one this year to be detained at the port of Palermo in Sicily after the ship completed a mandatory quarantine following the disembarkation of 150 rescued people in Sicily. On 6 May, the Spanish-flagged Aita Mari operated by Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario was also detained, followed by the detaining of Sea-Watch 3 in the port of Porto Empedocle on 8 July. On 22 July, Ocean Viking of SOS MEDITERRANEE was also detained in Porto Empedocle after an 11-hour Port State Control. Another rescue vessel, the Iuventa operated by the German aid group Jugend Rettet was detained by Italian authorities in August 2017, after it was accused of “facilitating the irregular entry” of migrants into Italy and is still blocked.

Sustained criminalisation campaign of SAR NGOs

The detainment of Sea-Watch 4 is just the latest blow in a campaign of criminalisation against search and rescue NGOs. Amid accusations of colluding with smugglers, criminal investigations and judicial proceedings against MSF, (including on way it managed waste on board) in 2018 the organisation had to stop its search and rescue operations on board the Aquarius, a ship operated in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE, after it lost its flag twice in two months at the instigation of Italian authorities. Such decision was the result of a sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations providing assistance to vulnerable people.

 

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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

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“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

READ  Mediterranean deaths, Somali unrest, and the cost of coronavirus: The Cheat Sheet

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

READ  Nigeria to prioritise evacuation of citizens stranded in China

UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

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“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

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Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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