MALTESE authorities on Monday refused the Ocean Viking rescue ship permission to refuel in their harbours while on its search and rescue mission off the coast of Libya.
According to SOS Mediterranee, which operates the ship together with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF – Doctors Without Borders), the Ocean Viking was originally allowed to refuel on open waters.
Laura Garel from SOS Mediterranee said: ‘Ocean Viking was scheduled to refuel offshore Malta as is standard practice for ships in the area needing fuel.
‘This would have been convenient for SOS Mediterranee and the ship since we would be passing through the area in order to reach the central Mediterranean where we conduct our search and rescue activities.’
She added that Maltese maritime authorities informed the Ocean Viking via VHF radio that the ship had ‘no authorisation to enter Maltese territorial waters’.
‘We did not receive an official explanation about why we were not allowed to refuel,’ she said.
The Ocean Viking, sailing under the Norwegian flag and currently located about 150km from the Maltese coast, started its mission from the French port of Marseille last Monday, August 5th.
According to Garel, the ship has fuel and food left for several days and it will now head to the central Mediterranean to conduct search and rescue activities.
The organisation is looking for a solution for when fuel and food eventually run out, but did not have one as of Monday afternoon.
Another 81 refugees were rescued off the coast of Libya on Sunday, joining 130 others aboard the Ocean Viking.
The young men, mostly Sudanese, who had left Libya late on Saturday in a blue rubber dinghy, clapped and cheered as the ship came into view.
Sunday’s rescue was the third in as many days.
The ship has been patrolling international waters some 50 nautical miles off the coast of Tripoli.
‘We’re the only ones in the area, the Libyan coastguard don’t respond’ to distressed migrant vessels, SOS Mediterraneanee search and rescue coordinator Nicholas Romaniuk said.
Romaniuk said fair weather conditions would likely encourage more departures from Libyan shores.
A further incentive is that the three-day Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, which kicked off on Sunday, may reduce the presence of authorities patrolling Libyan beaches.
About two-thirds of those aboard the Ocean Viking are Sudanese.
The group rescued on Friday were from West Africa, mainly from Senegal as well as Ivory Coast, who had come to Libya to work but got caught up in the fighting in the lawless North African country.
MSF, which registers the migrants on board, said Sunday that four-fifths of the latest group to be rescued were aged between 18 and 34, while 17 per cent were under 18.
The rescues come at a time of tension between Italy and other EU states, with the Italian government refusing to let migrants land on its shores unless its EU partners help take them in.
The Ocean Viking is registered in Norway, and Italy’s far-right Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini sent a warning to Oslo last week.
‘Italy is not legally bound, nor disposed to take in clandestine, unidentified migrants from on board the Ocean Viking,’ Salvini wrote.
The ship, Open Arms, operated in the same area by Spanish charity Proactiva, counts 160 migrants, of whom 121 have been aboard for 10 days while waiting for reluctant EU states to take them in.
Open Arms founder Oscar Camps on Sunday made a new appeal for European solidarity, tweeting: ‘Tenth day on board, on a scorching Sunday in August. We have 160 reasons to carry on, 160 human beings who have the right to disembark at a safe port. Shame on you, Europe.’
Nine of the refugees rescued by Open Arms were allowed to disembark on Sunday, eight of them flown by helicopter to Malta and one to the southernmost Italian island of Lampedusa.
Most were evacuated for suspected tuberculosis or pneumonia, while a 32-year-old woman required treatment for brain cancer.
The Ocean Viking has a crew of nine, plus a search-and-rescue team and medical and other staff. The ship can house between 200 and 300 refugees.
It set sail seven months after the organisations were forced to abandon the mission using their ship Aquarius.
After nearly three years of operations, in which it rescued about 30,000 people, the Aquarius was forced to cease operations in December 2018 because of what the groups said was obstruction by some European countries.
The charities said at the start of the new mission that ‘426 men, women and children have died’ since the beginning of the year in the central Mediterranean while attempting to ‘escape the escalating conflict in Libya and the deplorable conditions of Libyan detention centres.
‘As people are still fleeing Libya on one of the most perilous sea crossings in the world, and with almost no available rescue assets present in the central Mediterranean, it has been an imperative for both SOS Mediterranee and MSF to return.’
Meanwhile, Italy’s Salvini has lashed out at actor Richard Gere who criticised the country’s refusal to let in more than 100 refugees stranded at sea.
Golden Globe winner Gere visited a boat with 121 refugees on board in international waters near the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The Hollywood star was pictured delivering food supplies to the migrants on board Open Arms.
Criticising both Salvini and US President Trump, Gere said: ‘Demonising people has to stop everywhere on the planet.
‘These are extraordinary people, they are so strong, they have been through such horrors.
‘Their passage from their home countries to Libya, what they had to endure, the women above all … The women had been all raped, multiple times. The men tortured in prison, not just once but multiple times.
‘What most people refer to as migrants, I refer to as refugees that are running from a fire.’
Salvini responded: ‘Given this generous millionaire is voicing concern for the fate of the Open Arms migrants, we thank him: he can take back to Hollywood, on his private plane, all the people aboard and support them in his villas. Thank you Richard!’
Medecins Sans Frontieres issued a statement last week, saying: ‘On 25 July, tragedy once again hit the Mediterranean.
‘An estimated 150 people drowned whilst fleeing Libya. It brings this year’s toll in the Central Mediterranean Sea to at least 576 people.
‘This entirely avoidable loss of life highlights the desperate lack of search and rescue capacity, and the terrible plight of those fleeing Libya.
‘Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) witnesses first-hand the unimaginable human price being paid for the policies of interception and detention of migrants and refugees. To see the detention centres in Libya is to see human suffering on an industrial scale.
‘For many of the survivors of the 25 July disaster, the vicious cycle of arbitrary detention, violence, and exploitation continues without end in sight.
‘People are still being held in Tajoura – the very detention centre that was hit by an airstrike one month ago, killing 53 people and injuring another 70.’
An MSF doctor who witnessed the devastation described the scene as a bloodbath: ‘There were bodies everywhere, and body parts sticking out from under the rubble. At some point, I had to stop … I would have to walk over the bodies to proceed. I knew many of the dead by name, I knew their stories.’
MSF stressed: ‘As with those who continue to drown at sea, the deaths at Tajoura were both predictable and preventable. Such deaths will continue for as long as calls for evacuation are ignored.
‘There is nothing currently protecting people from further airstrikes or militia violence in Libya.
‘Forcing people back to detention centres is, for many, a death sentence. The human tragedy facing those caught in Libya is a man-made tragedy. When maritime deployments under Operation Sophia were stopped, Europe’s leaders could no longer pretend they were saving lives.
‘The only “choice” left for people trying to flee Libya is between being stuck in a detention centre, or risking death at sea. It seems that Europe’s leaders consider people drowning as an acceptable price to pay in order to stem the flow in the Central Mediterranean.
‘Nothing can justify the fact that people are trapped in Libya or left to die at sea on Europe’s doorstep.
‘In recent weeks, some EU leaders called for predictable and sustainable solutions for search and rescue, and for an end to arbitrary detention in Libya. The situation cannot wait: turn these words into actions. Refugees and migrants trapped in Libya must be allowed to flee to safety, and forcible returns must end.
‘European leaders must enable the full evacuation of all those arbitrarily detained. This has been shown to be possible in the recent past. And yet for every one person evacuated or resettled out of the country, three more people are forcibly returned by the Libyan Coastguard.
‘That is the very same Libyan Coastguard that the EU is supporting with additional vessels. If leaders are finally to live up to their public declarations, this fundamental contradiction must be brought to an end.’