These rescuers want to save refugees fleeing Libya by sea. But they're trapped on shore by red tape
'It's a kind of weaponization of the system to detain the ships,' says rescuer Daniel Bebawi
From a distance, the vessels bobbing in the azure waters off the port of Augusta, Sicily, present a comforting tableau.
Sunshine bounces off the waves as the plume of smoke rising from the snow-capped Mount Etna scatters in the wind.
But in this small port, the latest chapter of Europe's realpolitik approach to migration is playing out with deadly consequences.
Among the vessels idling in Augusta, including two ships upon which rescued migrants are quarantined for COVID-19, is Sea-Watch 3.
The ship, part of a German NGO, returned to the port in early March with its crew of 14, after a rescue mission to save 363 migrants in the sea between Sicily and Libya.
After its crew quarantined for two weeks, the Italian coastguard carried out a lengthy safety inspection called a state port control. It then announced it was placing the vessel under administrative detention, citing irregularities in how the crew communicated their entry in port, waste management and safety regulations.
Italian authorities say the inspections ensure naval safety. But humanitarian rescuers say the constant checks and bureaucratic delays are just the latest tactic Italy is using to keep such humanitarian boats from bringing migrants to a Europe that doesn't want them.
'A weaponization of the system to detain the ships'
Daniel Bebawi, a former car mechanic who worked on cargo ships before joining Sea-Watch, says safety inspections are normal and necessary. What's not, he says, is the frequency with which the Italian coast guard carries out the lengthy checks out on NGO vessels, the range of discrepancies inspectors find and the constant blocking of the boats in port.
"Normally a port state control is not allowed to be more frequent than once every 12 months," he said. "They basically keep looking until they find something that they can write about and detain the ship over. It's a kind of weaponization of the system to detain the ships."
Five of seven NGO rescue boats now in the Mediterranean are currently unable to leave port — four of which are blocked in Italy for administrative reasons.
"What we're witnessing is a situation of three different strategies," said Giorgia Linardi, the legal advisor for Sea-Watch. "We have a renewed interest of prosecutors in investigating NGOs for facilitating illegal immigration, media attacks against NGOs and the latest — blocking NGO ships in port through administrative measures."
'Bogging the boats down in bureaucracy'
The administrative blocks began after Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was replaced by Luciana Lamorgese in mid-2019, Linardi said.
Salvini gained renown for blocking migrant rescue boats from re-entering Italian ports, stranding ships crowded with traumatized migrants at sea for weeks. He vociferously proclaimed his hard line to shore up support among Italians, many of whom feel abandoned by Europe, left alone to deal with thousands of migrants escaping Libya who arrive on their country's shores.
The current government does not block rescue ships from docking. But under Salvini, fewer NGO vessels were blocked from leaving port than under today's government.
"This government realized the strategy of bombastic attacks against NGOs backfired and that the criminal investigations went nowhere," said Linardi. "They realized bogging the boats down in bureaucracy was cheaper and a lot more effective."
A 'moment of shame'
As the rescue boats idle in Italian ports, refugees stranded at sea are dying as they attempt to reach safe harbour. So far this year, almost 9,000 people have crossed to Italy, with almost 300 dying during their attempts, according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
Last week 130 people escaping Libya in a rubber boat drowned after their radio calls for help went unheeded for two days by bordering countries. Italy's coast guard planes circled the sinking boat. Malta said the rescue was up to Libya. Libya said conditions were too dangerous to embark on a rescue mission.
Three cargo vessels attempted to reach the people in distress, with the only NGO rescue boat at sea, the Ocean Viking, 10 hours away. By the time it got to the sinking boat, all that remained on the surface of the sea was the deflated dinghy and a dozen bodies.
Pope Francis condemned the inaction by the governments as a "moment of shame."
WATCH | Megan Williams explains the ships' predicament:
Linardi says Italy and Europe have constructed a fictional narrative that NGO rescue boats are not needed because Libyan coast guard ships, supplied by Italy with EU funds, are there to rescue migrant boats in distress.
"But this is not what happens. Libya is not able today to cover an immense search and rescue area that was instituted simply for the European Union to push forward its externalization policy," she said.
Even when Libyans do intercept boats in international waters, Linardi says, they can't be called rescues, but rather "illegal pushbacks" — the returning of people to a place where their lives are at risk.
Rescuers' frustration palpable
As Italy keeps rescue boats mired in bureaucracy, the frustration aboard Sea-Watch 3 is palpable.
"For the last two years, we have barely been out on a mission, doing what we want to do, so it's been very, very hard," said deckhand Lina Veller. She has spent the weeks in port painting, de-rusting, oiling and carrying out other maintenance work while the ship has been docked.
"You really strongly have to disconnect your mind from what's happening."
In the five or so weeks that Sea-Watch 3 has been stuck in Augusta, almost 300 people trying to flee Libya have drowned in the Mediterranean — "and those are just the deaths we know of," Veller said.
She has seen a lot of tragedy during her four years with Sea-Watch. But she says the deaths last week of the 130 migrants in the rubber boat drove home a bitter lesson.
"There was the belief that if you show what's happening and that if you show that people are drowning, political decisions will be different," said Veller. "They will stop people from drowning and there will be legal ways for them to flee and migrate. That was the expectation.
"What's changed is that it's more OK for people to drown."
- A previous version of this story provided incorrect information about the number of people who have died attempting to enter Italy this year by sea. The correct figure is nearly 300, according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.May 11, 2021 4:33 AM ET