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In the shadow of Covid-19, the Mediterranean is the scene of an overlooked "tragedy"

Source : Hermine Poschmann, Creative CommonsAttribution , CC-BY-SA

Since the beginning of the health crisis linked to the coronavirus, the Mediterranean has become the scene of a tragedy.

Indeed, today, many migrants find themselves in distress situations and are stranded at sea due to the suspension of rescue operations and the closure of ports in Italy and Malta.

We are going to go back over the main events that led to this situation.

In March, Europe became the global epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Faced with the rapid spread of the virus, measures have been adopted within Europe. Some of these measures have had a dramatic impact on migrants. This is the case, for example, of the closure of ports in Italy and Malta.

Indeed, in early April, Italy and Malta announced the closure of their ports because of the health crisis. The Maltese and Italian governments then explained that this situation would no longer allow them to guarantee the rescue of migrants or their disembarkation in Italia and Malta.

This closure of ports therefore resulted in the suspension of rescue operations for migrants in the Central Mediterranean.

Following this announcement, only two humanitarian vessels, the Alan Kurdi of the German NGO Sea-Eye and Aita Mari, chartered by a Basque NGO, continued their operations in order to help migrants in distress.

However, since the beginning of May, all rescue operations have stopped. The Alan Kurdi and Aita Mari have been detained by the Italian coastguards for "technical" problems.

The NGO Sea-Eye, which charters the Alan Kurdi, then expressed its incomprehension: "The Alan Kurdi has just left the shipyard and has been completely overhauled. This blockade's only goal is to actively stop us from rescuing at sea. Instead of protecting human rights, those who do it are held up at every corner."

Before being seized, the Alan Kurdi and the Aita Mari, which had rescued some 180 migrants, had to wait several days at sea before a decision was made on the fate of the migrants on board. The migrants were finally quarantined on the Italian ferry Rubattino before disembarking at the port of Palermo in Sicily.

Thus, faced with the closure of ports and the immobilization of humanitarian rescue ships, many migrants found themselves stranded at sea. This is the case, for example, of 78 migrants who were rescued by a merchant ship on May 3, in Maltese waters and remained on board the ship while waiting for a safe port.

Another boat, the Europa II, which belongs to the cruise company Captain Morgan, also came to rescue 57 migrants stranded at sea. This rescue operation was led by the Maltese authorities, which today refuse to let them disembark on the island and claim a sharing agreement within the European Union.

A second vessel, the Bahari, also owned by Captain Morgan, assisted migrants who are currently 13 nautical miles off the coast of Malta.

Prime Minister Robert Abela then stated that Malta meets its international obligations to coordinate rescues and added that the vessels each cost around € 3,000 per day.

These vessels have therefore been outside Maltese waters for three weeks now with migrants in distress on board.

On Twitter, Alarm Phone, an NGO involved in sea rescue, informed that migrants detained on one of the two ships have launched hunger strikes and even attempted suicide due to their weeks-long confinement.

By paying a private company to keep migrants on board, the Maltese government is therefore breaching human rights.

On Thursday, May 21, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on "Malta and other European States to speed efforts to bring some 160 rescued refugees and migrants, who remain at sea on board two Captain Morgan vessels, on to dry land and to safety".

The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) also asked the Maltese government to "immediately" allow the 160 migrants stranded in the Mediterranean Sea to disembark on the island, again calling for "European solidarity".

“It’s incredible that the Maltese government would hold these people captive on tourist ferries in miserable conditions for weeks to pressure other EU countries to take them”

Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said in a statement.

The situation at sea has therefore become worrying for migrants because, despite the interruption of rescues in the Mediterranean Sea and the closure of Italian and Maltese ports, departures of migrants to Europe continue.

According to Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, the departures from the Libyan coasts increased by more than 290% compared to the same period a year ago, with 6,629 attempts to reach Europe between January and the end of April. He also noted a 150% increase in departures from Tunisia and an increase in departures from West Africa to the Canary Islands.

Of the 6,629 people who left Libya, 48% were intercepted or rescued by the Libyan coast guard.

In Libya, the Covid-19 health crisis is hitting migrants hard. Indeed, 75% of them have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the closure of businesses.

It is estimated that there are more than 650,000 migrants in Libya, in a country still at war. In addition, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) counts nearly 1,500 migrants detained in Libyan camps in inhuman conditions.

Furthermore, migrants have to cope with the Libyan civil war. On April 9, Tripoli announced the closure of its port due to the intensification of conflicts in the country. Indeed, for more than a year, the Government of National Accord (GNA), recognized by the UN, and the forces of Marshal Haftar have been fighting for control of Tripoli and in recent weeks, the bombings of the Libyan capital and its surroundings have intensified.

These bombings are therefore problematic because they prevent the disembarkation of migrants intercepted at sea.

Faced with this situation, the Maltese Foreign Minister, Evarist Bartolo, launched on Tuesday 14 April a request for European humanitarian aid worth 100 million euros for Libya.

According to the minister, "all the ingredients are there for a humanitarian disaster".

Stressing that Malta was ready to play its part, including by helping with logistics, he then called for a humanitarian aid program to provide food, medicine and medical equipment to Libya. Such assistance could improve living conditions in the camps and encourage Libyan migrants and displaced people to stay rather than "risking their lives in the Mediterranean"

However, the UN is sounding the alarm and is concerned about the refusal of some European states to assist migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.

The IOM is also alarmed by this situation, recalling that the central Mediterranean “remains the most dangerous maritime migration route on Earth and, in the current context, risks that invisible shipwrecks are occurring out of sight of the international community have grown. "

As for Vincent Cochetel, who estimates at 179 the number of dead in the area since January, he warned "if there is no help at sea and countries drag their feet to rescue and allow people to disembark, we’re going to end up with fairly serious humanitarian situations”.

Some countries then reacted. In a joint letter sent to the European Commission, the French, Italian, Spanish and German interior ministers called for the establishment of a "solidarity mechanism" for "search and rescue" at sea, explaining in particular that "currently, a handful of member states carry an excessive burden, which shows a lack of solidarity and risks making the whole system dysfunctional".

It therefore becomes necessary today to carry out rescues at sea and to allow migrants to disembark in safe ports. This was recalled by the Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovi, in a statement of April 16, 2020: “Despite the unprecedented challenges European countries face due to COVID-19, saving lives at sea and disembarking survivors in a safe port must continue”.

She then called on Council of Europe member states “to provide effective support and assistance in finding quick solutions (including temporary ones, where necessary), and to ensure that coastal states are not left to tackle this alone”.

As the Commissioner for Human Rights recalled, " In this trying period, we are reminded the hard way of the value of human life and the necessity to preserve the right to life, including of those who, adrift at sea, are far from the public eye".

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