Two humanitarian rescue vessels, the Alan Kurdi and the Aita Mari, have been impounded by Italian authorities. The owners of both vessels claim it is a form of harassment and an attempt to prevent them from carrying out their mission of rescuing asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. The Italian coastguards have attempted to justify the impounding by arguing that the vessels had defects on board which rendered them unsafe.
The Alan Kurdi, named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015, is operated by the German NGO Sea Eye. The vessel rescued 150 asylum seekers off the coast of Libya on Tuesday and brought them to Italy before being subsequently impounded. The Aita Mari is run by a Spanish organisation, Humanitarian Sea Rescue. The vessel brought 34 rescued asylum seekers to Italy before being impounded by the Italian coastguard on Wednesday.
Julian Pahlke, spokesperson for Sea Eye, made a statement on the website regarding the impounding of their vessel. He stated: “Detaining our ship is pure harassment to grind civil sea rescue efforts to a halt bit by bit… this blockade’s only goal is to actively stop us from rescuing at sea.” He also described the Italian authorities’ reasoning for impounding the vessel “grotesque.” The coastguard cited defects and irregularities on board as the pretext for the impounding. However, the Alan Kurdi had just received five weeks of work in the shipyard where it received a complete overhaul, rendering this argument unconvincing.
The United Nations human rights office has expressed great concern surrounding the current state of affairs in the Mediterranean, particularly since these vessels have been impounded. Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN human rights high commissioner, made a statement regarding this on Friday. He stated the human rights office is “..concerned that humanitarian search and rescue vessels.. are being prevented from supporting migrants in distress, at a time when the numbers attempting to make the perilous journey from Libya to Europe has increased sharply.” The impounding of the Alan Kurdi and the Aita Mari has meant that there are currently no search and rescue vessels operating in the central Mediterranean.
Colville further stated that the UN is calling “..for restrictions on the work of these rescuers to be lifted immediately. Such measures are clearly putting lives at risk.”
Italy and Malta have both closed their ports to asylum seekers arriving by boat in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, stating that they cannot accommodate the arrivals. Despite the pandemic, asylum seekers are continuing to undertake the dangerous journey and attempt to arrive at the ports. According to the Italian Interior Ministry, there have been 4,069 arrivals thus far in 2020, compared with 842 in the same period in 2019. For as long as conflicts continue, people will continue to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to seek safety, even in the midst of the pandemic.
While COVID-19 will have affected the capacity of some countries to accommodate asylum seekers, it does not provide a pretext to prevent humanitarian ships from carrying out their mission in the Mediterranean. The impounding of these vessels amplifies the danger involved with crossing the Mediterranean and should be lifted immediately in order to prevent needless deaths.