Two boats whose crews have been saving the lives of migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean have been impounded in Italy.
The German-flagged Alan Kurdi, which in April picked up 150 migrants off the Libyan coast and brought them to Italy, was impounded on Tuesday, and the Spanish-flagged Aita Mari, which had brought 34 people to the country, are being held in the port of Palermo, on the island of Sicily.
Both boats arrived at the island on Monday, having completed a two-week quarantine period offshore.
Their owners have called the impounding a bid to block their humanitarian mission, but the coastguard cited “technical and operational irregularities” as the reason for detaining the ships.
The coastguard said in a statement that work would be needed on both boats before they could return to the sea, adding that the respective flag-countries would have to intervene because they were responsible for compliance with ship safety.
No further details were immediately available.
Sea-Eye, the German group which operates the Alan Kurdi, dubbed the move “grotesque”, saying the boat had just returned from a five-week refit.
Unser Schiff #ALANKURDI wurde in Palermo festgesetzt. Grund sollen technische Mängel sein, obwohl das Schiff im Frühjahr vollständig überholt wurde.
— sea-eye (@seaeyeorg) May 7, 2020
“Detaining our ship is pure harassment to grind civil sea rescue efforts to a halt bit-by-bit,” Julian Pahlke, the group’s spokesperson, said in a statement on their website.
“The Alan Kurdi has just left the shipyard and has been completely overhauled. This blockade’s only goal is to actively stop us from rescuing at sea. Instead of protecting human rights, those who do it are held up at every corner.”
Crews of other Mediterranean rescue boats offered solidarity.
“We do not see the same fury of the authorities over the violations of the obligation to rescue at sea, on the delays that cause tragedies and deaths, on keeping dozens of castaways – women, men and children – offshore without allowing their landing for several days,” tweeted the charity Mediterranea: Saving Humans, which operates the Mare Jonio humanitarian vessel.
“All our solidarity and strength are therefore with Alan Kurdi and Aita Mari, to their commanders and their crews, confident that they will be ready to go back to the sea soon, fulfilling all legitimate requirements, as we [also] prepare to do with our Mare Jonio.”
Both Italy and nearby Malta have closed their ports to migrant boats, saying they could not help them because of the coronavirus crisis. Almost 30,000 people have died in Italy of the COVID-19 disease, while five people have died in Malta.
Despite the closures, migrants have continued to arrive, with some 4,069 people reaching Italy so far this year, compared with 842 in the same period in 2019, the Interior Ministry says.
Malta announced on Thursday it had chartered a second tourist boat to hold newly rescued migrants offshore after the armed forces saved 120 people from a dinghy overnight.
An initial boat was chartered last month to hold 57 migrants outside Malta’s territorial waters until the European Union found a way to rehouse them. A deal has not yet been reached.
Italy shut its ports to humanitarian rescue vessels last year, in a move spearheaded by then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, of the far-right populist League party.
Those restrictions were lifted following the collapse of that coalition government, and numbers of new arrivals have again risen in 2020.
But ports closed once more as the coronavirus pandemic spread. Charities accuse Italian authorities of interfering with their operations, increasing the risk to human life. Italy says NGO boats make the problem worse by tempting people to make the perilous voyage.
The rise in arrivals comes at a time when Italy is considering giving work permits to irregular migrants to help farmers harvest their crops.
“Clearly, if you’re talking about amnesties, regularisations and permits, the message that we give to the other side of the Mediterranean is: ‘Go, go, go, sooner or later they will sort you out’,” Salvini said on Thursday.