Editor’s note: the Ocean Viking was assigned a safe port late Thursday evening and will disembark in Sicily on Saturday.
ROME—No one may ever know for sure what drove a man who had just been rescued to jump overboard a migrant rescue vessel on Wednesday night. It could have been the smell of sweat, urine, and vomit from 572 people crammed in the ship—or the fact that no one in Europe seems to give a damn about their fate. After jumping ship, the man was rescued again, and told his saviors, SOS Mediterranee Search and Rescue, a French NGO, that he “could not take it anymore.”
The vessel, the Ocean Viking, picked up the man and the others—including 183 minors of whom two have disabilities—in six perilous operations in the waters between Sicily and Malta in late June and early July. Had they not been rescued, they could have sunk and disappeared—like the several hundred who died at sea in June, including a pregnant woman whose floating corpse was plucked out of the water. Or they would have made it to the Italian island of Lampedusa, like the 552 people who arrived there Tuesday night on several small boats.
In 2021 so far, more than 38,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea, a notable uptick from the same time last year when the pandemic prohibited NGOs from docking in Italy at all. How many people died trying to cross will never be known, as the only people who keep track of departures from Libya are smugglers.
The people on the Ocean Viking were rescued from rickety wooden decommissioned fishing boats and not rubber dinghies—a change in strategy those who watch Mediterranean migration will note. The return to the type of wooden boats that were used before NGO ships prowled the waters off the coast of Libya means something, though no one knows quite what. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi had recently been to Libya, whose coast guard is supported and paid for by the EU to block departures, detaining migrants in horrific detention centers, their fates at the hands of armed militias.
The crew on the Ocean Viking say that if they are not given a safe port to disembark their rescued people, they will run out of food by Saturday. “With over 570 survivors accommodated on the aft deck of the Ocean Viking, all available space is being used, which makes it impossible for our teams to distribute any other kind of food than pre-packed rations covering 24 hours of nutritional needs for each person,” Luisa Albera, the ship’s search and rescue coordinator, said Thursday. Those pre-packed meals will be finished on Friday.
SOS Mediterranee Search and Rescue’s medical team also say they have seen an increase in psychological distress and exhaustion.
“One of the two minors with disabilities is showing signs of increasing body stiffness due to the reduction of physical movements and had to be moved to the medical clinic at night,” a statement from the group said.
In recent weeks, other charity rescue ships, including MSF’s Geo Barents, have been given permission to disembark their rescued people, who are required to quarantine for ten days, before being distributed to camps across Italy. The Geo Barents was then sequestered in Sicily after the Italian Coast Guard said they found “various technical irregularities that could compromise the safety of the crew and of the people on board.” A spokesperson for the Coast Guard told The Daily Beast that those irregularities included not having enough life-saving equipment on board, including rafts and belts.
It is unclear why the Ocean Viking has been held at bay, or if it marks a change in Italy or Europe’s strategy. Italy’s government continues to struggle with how to manage the issue after years of being inundated by people willing to risk their lives for a better one.
But sporadically stopping some migrant rescue boats and allowing others to disembark sends mixed messages to the NGOs that tend to assume they can land in Italy. Italy’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a question for clarification about why this ship is different.
Whatever the reason, the situation on board is dire, Albera explained. “The situation on board the Ocean Viking is worsening by the hour. There is no time for discussions behind closed doors,” she said. “Despite five requests for a Place of Safety sent by the Ocean Viking to competent maritime authorities, we are being kept in the dark. Making survivors wait on the deck of our ship, exposed to the sun and elements, is inhumane. It is beyond imagination. Inevitably, tensions and exhaustion are at the utmost on board the Ocean Viking.”
A former NGO captain who had just returned from a mission told The Daily Beast that the longer the migrants are made to stay at sea, the more dangerous it becomes for everyone, including the rescue team and ship crew. Those tensions are exacerbated by the usual racism that exists among the migrants—many Middle Easterners refuse to sleep near Africans, calling them derogatory terms and complaining to the rescue crew about sharing the humble facilities the ships have onboard. There are no cabins or beds, everyone has to sleep on the open decks. Tarps are put up to protect them when it rains, which could soon be an issue.
“As if the plight of the survivors was not enough, the weather will be deteriorating,” Albera said. “It is not only a moral obligation to swiftly provide a Place of Safety to people rescued at sea, it is a legal duty. We call on European member states to show solidarity and support coastal states.”