NGO search and rescue missions face increasing challenges on the Mediterranean Sea – Sea Watch 3 vessel still blocked

Flickr/Sinn Féin

Twenty days after entering the port of Catania in Italy, the Sea Watch 3 rescue ship remains in one of the Sicily’s ports, as the inspection of the Dutch authorities requested further maintenance of the ship in order to ensure “the ship’s conformity to regulations in force”. The ship has been kept in the port by the Italian Coast Guard since the first inspection on 31 January 2019. The inspection was carried out by maritime security technicians, who conducted a technical check, but the crew of the Sea Watch 3 feels that the boat is being blocked in line with a range of measures making search and rescue operations more difficult for NGOs. Kim Heaton-Heather, who is responsible for the search-and-rescue operations of the Sea Watch 3, says that by blocking the vessel, the Dutch authorities fuel the anti-migrant sentiment that has been spreading among EU’s political powers, which intensifies the anxiety of refugees aiming to reach a safe country.

Earlier this year, the Sea Watch 3 vessel faced hardship as it had been cut off on the Mediterranean Sea with 47 migrants on-board, who were prevented from disembarking in the nearby ports for nearly two weeks. Johannes Bayer, Chairman of the German organization Sea-Watch, said that, through their decisions, Italy and the EU are pursuing anti-migration policies and steer their political agenda against The Mediterranean rescue operations have been challenged by Italian public prosecutors who, in several cases, accused NGOs of being linked to human trafficking networks and thus aiding illegal migration. Over 50 NGOs have raised the alarm stating that seizing and blocking of NGO boats and allegations of aiding illegal migration have made it nearly impossible to operate.

It has been observed that the invisible, virtual’ wall between EU and Africa, built through EU migration and externalisation policies, is becoming more solid and slowly moving deeper into Africa, far beyond the Mediterranean Sea shores. A Proposal of the EU Commission has introduced the new regulations for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex. The new amendment introduces a more centralized approach towards the decision-making and Frontex’s operational capabilities, as well as deployment of a 10,000-strong standing corps, which consists of border guards, return specialists, return escorts and others.

In 2016, EU’s operation Sophia, was extended to supporting the task of training the Libyan coast guard and navy in order to protect European borders. The original mission of the operation Sophia, to eradicate the networks of traffickers and smugglers in the Mediterranean, has shifted into keeping the EU’s ‘backyard’ clean from new refugee arrivals.

Trained Libyan security forces aim to bring refugees back to the Libyan detention centres which have been shown to be unsafe and inhumane. In the past months, the UN as well as the Human Rights Watch among others published reports which revealed that refugees and migrants are exposed to severe violence, exploitation, malnutrition and physical and psychological torture. Beyond the detention centres, many are housed in secretive human trafficking warehouses, beyond reach. The seriousness of the situation in the detention centres has been recognized by various experts, delegates as well as diaspora representatives, who adopted a declaration supporting the enhancement of protection of refugees and migrants.