Ocean Viking rescue ship awaits port access in latest standoff

Hundreds, including children, stranded onboard Ocean Viking as Malta denies entry and Italy ignores docking requests.

    The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking has been stranded at sea for 13 days awaiting port access [Ocean Viking/Handout via Reuters]
    The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking has been stranded at sea for 13 days awaiting port access [Ocean Viking/Handout via Reuters]

    Two charities running rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea have said Italy has ignored requests to allow their ship to bring 356 refugees and migrants ashore, exposing Europe's latest failure to deal with African migration.

    The Norwegian-flagged ship, Ocean Viking, stranded at sea for 13 days awaiting port access, has been denied entry by Malta and its two requests to Italian authorities have gone unanswered, the charities said on Wednesday.

    The ship is carrying mostly Africans, plucked from the sea in four separate missions. They include more than 100 minors, about 90 of them unaccompanied, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said.

    Three children are under the age of five.

    The plight of the Ocean Viking, run by MSF and another French charity, SOS Mediterranee, threatens to create another migration standoff with Italy if it chooses to head there, after weeks of controversy involving another charity-run rescue ship

    About 100 migrants and refugees were stranded off Italy for almost three weeks on the Open Arms until a prosecutor intervened and ordered them brought ashore against Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's wishes. Five of Italy's EU partners will take them in.

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    "This is shameful," said Jay Berger, project coordinator for MSF, speaking by satellite phone from the Ocean Viking in international waters between Malta and the southern Italian island of Linosa. 

    "Leaving migrants on rescue boats for weeks until the crisis becomes an emergency is becoming the new norm," he said. "We're not trying to force our way into Italian or Maltese waters. We're waiting for a solution but it is taking too long."

    The ship requested port access to Italian authorities on August 9 and August 12, the charities said.

    An Italian Transport Ministry spokesman declined to comment. Italy's Foreign Ministry did not respond immediately to an email seeking comment.

    Rome has banned entry to private rescue ships, which operate off Libya in international waters close to Italy. Salvini calls them "taxis" for people-smugglers and says Italy should not be "Europe's refugee camp".

    'No sleep, water, food'

    On board the Ocean Viking, supplies are running down and the crew has begun to ration showers to conserve water, said Frederic Penard, SOS Mediterranee's director of operations.

    "A rescue ship is like an ambulance. People should be transported but not living on it," MSF's Berger said, adding that there was no certainty those on board could endure the wait Open Arms experienced, which would mean another week at sea.

    In a press release issued on Monday, MSF described those on board the Ocean Viking as "completely exhausted".

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    "They have spent many hours at sea, with no sleep, no water, and no food," the charity said.

    "[And] immediately after embarkation, patients typically present with dehydration, general physical weakness, dizziness, hypo-or hyperthermia, and burns - mainly caused by fuel or the sun - or with newly sustained injuries associated with the crossing itself," it added.

    Even as patients begin to recover from those initial symptoms, MSF said, in subsequent days they continue to be afflicted by other "aches and pains, nausea ... or feelings of weakness". 

    "These symptoms are often psychosomatic, which means the body is physically responding to a psychological trauma that the mind is struggling to cope with," the charity added.

    European Commission urges 'solidarity'

    Amid the raised alarm, the European Commission invited EU member states to show more "solidarity" and agree to take in migrants and refugees on board the Ocean Viking, a spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

    No port except for Tripoli has welcomed the ship, the charities say. They regard the Libyan port as unsafe and fear those on board would be thrown into detention centres and suffer human rights abuses if returned to the country.

    Luca Pigozzi, a doctor on board, said that while most migrants were in a stable physical condition, he feared the impact of psychological damage caused by violence suffered when fleeing their home country.

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    "The situation on board is becoming more tense," he said.

    Libya is a hub for migrants and refugees, many of whom try to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats, fleeing violence and dire poverty in Africa for a better life. So far this year, more than 600 people have died trying to make the crossing.

    Malta turned down the Ocean Viking requests saying it could not take the lead on any disembarkment. 

    A Malta government spokesman said there was "no new update" on the Ocean Viking and declined to comment further.

    French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Paris was ready to take in 40 people from Ocean Viking. "Talks are under way with our European partners and I discussed the matter yesterday with my counterpart in Malta," Castaner said on Twitter.

    Norway, where the Ocean Viking is registered, has rejected a French request to take some of those on board, Justice Minister Joeran Kallmyr told broadcaster NRK late on Tuesday.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency