Crews onboard rescue ships say their vessels are being impounded due to ‘technical and operational’ irregularities.
Refugee and migrant rescue groups fear that European authorities are increasingly using maritime safety regulations to block ships from carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
The Italian Coast Guard blocked a migrant rescue ship owned by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms from leaving a port in Sicily last Friday, citing safety “anomalies” following an Italian order to seize the ship.
The Italian coast guard boarded the ship, which has faced threats of fines up to $1m from the Spanish government, and in a statement said it found: “Serious anomalies related to the safety of navigation, compliance with legislation on the protection of the marine environment and the training and familiarisation of the crew with the emergency procedures provided on board.”
The Open Arms was barred from leaving Porto Empedocle, a small city on the southern coast of Sicily, “until the technical and operational irregularities detected during the inspection have been corrected”, the Italian coast guard said.
The news came as roughly 83 migrants were aboard the Open Arms, waiting to be taken to six European nations who have offered to settle them.
The charity previously said the situation was “out of control”, with some of the migrants stuck for at least 19 days after being rescued at sea off the coast of Libya and many suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Around 15 migrants jumped off the ship, prompting the Spanish authorities to send a ship to collect them.
It remains unclear if the Open Arms addressed these “anomalies”, or was allowed to leave the port. Neither the charity nor the Italian Coast Guard responded to requests for comment.
Open Arms isn’t the first migrant rescue ship to face challenges regarding safety.
Haidi Sadik, the spokesperson for Sea-Watch, another migrant rescue NGO which flies a Dutch flag, said that country’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management “imposed a new safety regulation in April”.
She claimed the regulation: “[E]xcludes thousands of [other boats ]and basically just pinpoints Sea-Watch.”
The new regulation, Sadik said, focused solely on “pleasure craft who are based for charitable goals and systematically bring people to ports”.
She claimed: “[The regulations are] strict and unnecessary … It wasn’t a proper legislative change. It was just a ministry imposing this on us.”
Sadik also claimed there was no probationary period during which the Sea-Watch could adapt.
On August 1, an appeals court ruled that the new regulations’ “negative consequences of omitting a transitional period for the more stringent safety regulations on Sea-Watch’s ship, namely that people may drown due to limited rescue capacity in the Mediterranean Sea, outweigh” their purpose, according to a statement by Sea-Watch following the ruling.
Furthermore, Sea-Watch believes the motivations behind the new safety regulations were political.
The charity obtained nearly 300 pages of emails and other documents concerning the regulations and other issues concerning Sea-Watch through a Dutch freedom of information request.
There were no “particular incidents mentioned, no safety risks expressed, and there is no risk analysis of the entire group”, Sea-Watch found.
“While the policy change allegedly shall address safety concerns, the word itself rarely appears in the almost 300 pages,” it stated.
The “policy change was one of the outcomes of the EU Summit on Migration in June 2018”, Sea-Watch said, citing documents which showed conversations about the charity’s search and rescue efforts began about a week before the event started.
It was “quite evident that it was a political protest designed to hinder us to relieve pressure on [Dutch authorites]”, Sadik said.
The Sea-Watch spokesperson concluded by commenting on the 2018 EU migration summit: “They’re trying to find strategies across the EU to stop people from arriving”.
Dutch authorities did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.
Sadik was clear that pressure from high-level EU authorities would not stop Sea-Watch from saving lives, as is mandated by maritime law.
Even if some EU authorities are pressuring these search and rescue charities, the issue of migration must still be addressed, as migrants continue to flee their war-torn homes.
Spanish ship Audaz arrived in Sicily on Monday to retrieve the 15 migrants who jumped off the Open Arms vessel.
There is no firm date for their return to Spain, according to Spanish media.