NGO refugee rescue ship left waiting on European help that never came
An SMH rescuer attends to people onboard a wooden boat. Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH)

An NGO refugee rescue ship in the central Mediterranean waited hours today for help from the Maltese and Italian coastguards that never came after the vessel saved the lives of 148 people, 28 more than it is legally allowed to carry.

Basque charity Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH) announced in the morning that the Aita Mari had located 102 people — including a seven-month-old baby and two pregnant women — in a wooden boat within Malta’s search-and-rescue zone (SAR).

“The rescue ship will now wait for the European authorities to assign, as required by law, the closest safe port,” SMH said after the first rescue.

“Because of our location (34°58.02’N, 12°29.154’E), this should be [Malta’s responsibility], but the island has always refused to allow landings.”

Later in the afternoon, the Aita Mari came across a second boat, carrying 46 people.

However, SMH said that it could not bring the people on board because the Aita Mari was not allowed to carry more than 120 passengers.

“We have not been able to embark these 46 castaways yet,” SMH said. “However, life vests have been distributed and the stability of this boat is guaranteed while [we wait for] a solution [to be] found.

“We have asked Malta and Italy for help through their coastguards. Likewise, the other commercial ships in the area have been notified.”

Neither the Italian nor Maltese authorities answered the Aita Mari’s request for help, an SMH spokesperson told the Star. Eventually, the 46 decided not to wait any longer and continued their journey towards Europe.

“This rescue has occurred at a time when there are many boat trips from African shores to Europe. Between Wednesday and yesterday, almost 400 people crossed from Tunisia to Lampedusa and Pantelleria (both Italian islands).

“Two shipwrecks were known [to have happened] on February 14 and 15 in Tunisia — 23 dead and in Libya one body [has been] recovered.”

Elsewhere, NGO rescue ship Sea Watch 3 was finally allowed to leave port today, seven months after the Italian port authorities detained it for a range of supposed safety irregularities.

Sea Watch spokeswoman Mattea Weihe told the Star today that the ship had already begun preparing to return to sea. “What’s happening now is the Sea Watch 3 is conducting training sessions and assessing the situation,” she said.

“And as soon as everything is going well, they’re going to head south to the SAR zone.”

After being granted a single-voyage permit, the Sea Watch 3 headed back to its registered harbor in Spain for maintenance.

While there, the ship was reverified by the maritime authorities in Germany, whose flag it flies, and was confirmed to be safe and ready to sail by the Spanish authorities.

Sea Watch is currently fighting a legal battle against the Italian port authorities’ decision to detain the Sea Watch 3 and its other ship, the Sea Watch 4, last summer. The case has been referred to the European Court of Justice.

Two of the supposed safety failings identified by the Italian authorities on the Sea Watch 4 were that it was carrying too many life vests and that its toilets were not designed for everyone the ship might rescue.

“We are fighting the injustice and absurd regulations imposed on us and on all the other NGO ships as well,” Ms. Weihe said.

“The Sea Watch 4 is still in Palermo in Italy. And as soon as we have the confirmation from the court, due on February 23, we will then prepare for the next mission with the Sea Watch 4 as soon as possible.

“We see the situation in the Mediterranean with our airplanes … and we know how much need there is for rescue ships to be out there. This is why we’re doing everything we can to get back to sea.

“And this is also why we’re doing this court case. It takes a little more time, but in the end, if we win this, then that means all these port-state controls cannot be carried out in the absurd way that they have been used on all NGO ships.

“This could be a game changer for the whole SAR community.

Morning Star


Ben Cowles
Ben Cowles

Ben Cowles is deputy features editor and gaming columnist at the Morning Star, the socialist daily newspaper published in Great Britain.