Detained migrant rescue vessel released by Italian authorities

Sea-Watch 3 was granted temporary shelter by Italy, who had previously refused it entry to dock. Credit: Daniel Ferro

The Dutch-flagged migrant rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 was given permission to leave Italy three weeks after it was detained for alleged safety and environmental infractions.

The ship had been stuck in the port of Catania, Sicily since 31 January after having disembarked 47 people rescued from the Central Mediterranean. According to Sea-Watch, the non-profit civil search and rescue group that operates Sea-Watch 3, the rescue itself took place on 19 January. However, there was no coordination or a mandatory port of safety provided by search and rescue authorities for 10 days.

“Five different inspections by Italian and Dutch authorities put the ship through its paces for about 80 hours and listed every supposed technical irregularity they could possibly find. And this, two weeks before the scheduled maintenance time,” said Friedhold Ulonska, First Officer on the Sea-Watch 3. “However, the crew was able to swiftly and adequately address all points, leaving the authorities with no valid reason to keep us in port.”

The detainment comes as Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has adopted an increasingly hardline stance towards migrants – and the rescue vessels that aid them in crossing into Europe. Late last year, the rescue vessel Aquarius Dignitus was notably de-flagged by two separate flag states following a supposed pressure campaign by Italian officials.

Sea-Watch 3 had been cleared by Dutch authorities in a five-yearly flag state inspection in July 2018. The subsequent investigations included a medical inspection to assess the ability of the ship to accommodate rescued people for a long period of time, something Sea-Watch says the rescue vessel cannot be held accountable for.

“For 21 days, the Italian and Dutch authorities have stretched their power to find any possible grounds to block the ship in port”, said Johannes Bayer, chairman of Sea-Watch. “They once again prevented the ship from a potentially life-saving mission and shifted the focus on superficial technical details to hide the brutal state of exception unfolding in the Central Mediterranean Sea and in Libya.”

The detainment and obstruction of migrant rescue vessels by European governments also sets a worrying precedent for commercial vessels and their masters – who have an obligation to render assistance upon a distress call. The Sea-Watch 3 is currently undergoing annual maintenance in Marseille, with an eye to commencing rescue operations again in mid-March.