The Malta Independent 21 February 2019, Thursday

Sea Watch 3 still held in Catania, despite rescue vessel vacuum in the Mediterranean

Neil Camilleri Monday, 11 February 2019, 08:38 Last update: about 9 days ago

The crew of the migrant rescue vessel Sea Watch 3 are ready to continue life saving operations in the central Mediterranean but the vessel remains without permission to leave from Catania harbour, the NGO said yesterday.

With NGO vessels being barred from leaving ports and coast guard and navy ships withdrawn from the area, it is not known how many attempted crossings there have been over the past week.

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The Sea-Watch 3 vessel remains unable to leave Catania under orders of the port authority and is barred from performing essential search and rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean Sea.

The vessel was recently caught up in another migrant stand-off between Malta and Sicily and was eventually allowed to disembark the migrants it had rescued in Catania.

However, the vessel has not been allowed to leave, in what is reminiscent of the time it spent impounded in Malta during the summer of 2018.

Earlier this year, the vessel, along with another ship operated by the Sea-Eye NGO, was left stranded off the coast of Malta for over two weeks.

The rescued migrants were eventually disembarked in Malta after an agreement was reached between several member states. The vessels were then ordered to leave Maltese waters, with permission for a crew change reportedly denied.

Maltese national Danny Mainwaring is among the crew members currently stuck on the Sea Watch in the port of Catania.

In comments to The Malta Independent, Sea Watch said: “The Public Prosecutor’s Office of Catania stated that Sea-Watch and the crew of its last mission have committed no criminal offence and that all their actions in the rescue of 19 January were justified, as the vessel and her crew saved the lives of 47 people whose boat was bound to sink.

“That mission culminated in a stand-off that saw vulnerable people stranded at sea on the coast of Syracuse as European leaders failed to provide a port of safety in a timely manner. Despite the public acknowledgement that Sea-Watch conducted itself within the law, the vessel remains barred from departing on technical grounds and awaits a visit from the Dutch flag state requested by the Italian Coast Guard.

“The Sea-Watch 3 passed a flag state inspection in the summer of 2018, which also confirmed its correct registration. We find ourselves in a scenario reminiscent to that which unfolded in Malta that same summer, when the vessel was kept from leaving port for over four months while a record number of people drowned at sea.

“EU governments have unanimously adopted a policy of attempting to criminalize sea rescue NGOs and instead finance, train and provide logistical support to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard.

“Despite the fact that Libya remains in a state of civil war and migrants and refugees face well documented human rights abuses in its detention facilities, the EU is outsourcing a policy of forced return to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

“This principle, enshrined in international law, prohibits governments from returning asylum seekers to a country in which they face a well-founded fear of persecution, and inhumane and degrading treatment.

“With many national coast guard and navy assets withdrawn from the Central Mediterranean and no NGO vessels currently at sea, it is not known how many attempted crossings there have been over the past week. With absolute numbers of crossings declining but the death rate rising, one can only conclude that Europe has strayed from the spirit of cooperation and respect for human rights that it was founded on; the same spirit that breathed life into Operation Sophia when mass drownings alarmed the continent and the world in May 2015.

“The Sea-Watch 3 and her crew are ready to sail and perform the essential life saving duties for which the organisation has been lauded across the world.

“European governments must meet their responsibilities towards those in distress both at sea and on land. Rather than criminalize rescue NGOs, who are upholding this responsibility in Europe's stead, governments must seek sustainable solutions while cooperating with NGOs and opening their ports to people rescued at sea.”

 

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