By Agence France-Presse
The last civilian rescue ship in the central Mediterranean is unable to take 58 migrants to port for fear of being impounded as other boats have been in what aid groups say is an illegal campaign to stop their work.
While the Aquarius waits to transfer its passengers to a Maltese coastguard vessel in international waters after Panama pulled its flag, preventing it being able to leave any port, other impounded vessels are fighting a protracted legal battle to depart Valletta.
Maltese authorities have prevented at least two NGO ships as well as a reconnaissance plane from leaving the island, and their predicament is emblematic of that suffered by many of what used to be a fleet of a dozen humanitarian vessels.
The Sea-Watch 3 belonging to the eponymous German NGO has been held in port since June and those on board are trying to find out exactly why they cannot sail.
Dutch inspectors were called in and gave the Netherlands-flagged ship the all-clear in July, but the ship is still not allowed to leave and the NGO says “there are no legal grounds to detain the Sea-Watch 3.”
“I’m extremely disappointed by the behavior of the authorities not giving any legal grounds, trying to fool us with some stupid arguments which are not applicable,” said head of mission Tamino Bohm.
“If you look at it (for) a few seconds it’s clearly a political reason.”
Bohm told AFP that the ship is ready to resume its work as soon as it gets permission.
“We would be ready in a few hours, to fly in some additional crew, get the ship ready and resume our operation,” he said.
Italy’s far-right anti-immigrant Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who came to power in early June, has closed Italian ports to the NGOs which he calls “smuggler helpers”.
“I’m really scared about the situation at the moment and highly concerned that a government or many governments are trying to use any means to stop sea rescue,” said Bohm.
The Moonbird light plane operated by Sea-Watch to scan the Mediterranean for stricken migrants has also been grounded since May, again without the Maltese authorities communicating the legal basis for its decision, according to the NGO.
Three MEPs visited Malta earlier this month and called on the Maltese government to “end the unlawful detention” of the boats and plane.
“A humanitarian act such as rescue at sea is not a crime and should never be criminalized,” they wrote to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on September 18.
In response, Muscat denied the vessels were being detained unlawfully, saying simply that Maltese authorities “need to ascertain that national and international rules are respected”.
German NGO Lifeline’s ship of the same name was also seized upon arrival in Valletta in June for alleged registration issues, although they say no problem has been identified with its paperwork.
Lifeline’s captain is due in court on Tuesday to hear the latest development in the alleged erroneous registration of his ship.
“We’re very interested to see what’s going to happen next because what we’re witnessing here is definitely a suffocating technique to keep us here detained on board in a very easy way,” said Lifeline’s Neeske Beckmann.
Sea-Watch says that the absence of civilian boats means that while numbers of people leaving North Africa have dropped, “the risk of dying is more than three or four times higher than some months before.”
“If all the civilian actors are pushed out of the search and rescue zone, we cannot witness anything any more and we know from certain cases that the Libyan coastguard is not reporting deaths to the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and UNHCR (UN refugee agency) as required,” said Bohm.