While Rome, Valletta and Brussels are playing hot potato, waiting to see who will end up making the first move, 49 migrants aboard two ships in the Mediterranean are waiting for the political games to end so they can finally walk on solid ground again. After 18 days spent at sea, their conditions are becoming more and more difficult by the hour. “The stress level is increasing. This situation must end as soon as possible if one wants to avoid a catastrophe,” warned Frank Doerner, a doctor working on the Sea Watch 3, which has 32 men, women and children on board. Meanwhile, on the Professor Albrecht Penck vessel, belonging to the Sea Eye NGO, the crew has been forced to start rationing water, both for drinking and for toilets, while their fuel is running out. “If this continues, we will have to ask for support from Malta,” said the mission leader, Jan Ribecck.
Last night, for a moment, it seemed that a solution had finally been found. Diplomatic sources in Brussels have disclosed that after the meeting between the ambassadors, an agreement had been reached to divide the 49 migrants on board the two ships among a number of countries. Those who had stepped forward, at the end of the extensive effort over the past few days to put various European chancelleries into contact by the EU Commissioner for Immigration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, were a group of ten countries, including, among others, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which signaled they would receive the migrants as soon as Malta approved their landing.
Unfortunately, the authorities in Valletta caused the agreement to collapse by demanding that the 300 migrants who have landed on the island since January 1 be divided in the same way. The deal fell apart—at least until today, when the issue is slated to be discussed at the General Affairs Council.
This postponement may end up having tragic consequences. On board the two ships, which are being forced to wait in Maltese waters just 8.5 miles apart, the physical situation, and, most seriously, the psychological situation of the 49 migrants are becoming worse and worse. On the Sea Watch, some of them have refused food and water, more as a gesture of sheer despair that protest. Some people have not slept for days, and they don’t understand why, after they almost made it to Europe at the end of a journey that for some has taken years, they are not allowed to make it to shore. “These people have been truly pushed to the limit,” says Dorner, the ship’s doctor. “The situation gets worse every day, especially from a psychological point of view.” And things are not going well on board the other ship either, belonging to the German NGO Sea Eye, where everything is now running out: water, food and even fuel. Unlike the Sea Watch 3, which a few days ago was resupplied with everything needed by a ship from Malta, those aboard the Professor are still surviving on its existing stocks, which have now dwindled to the limit. Since December 29, when they were rescued, the 17 migrants on board, including a 24-year-old woman and three boys aged 17, have been taking turns sleeping below deck and in a container on the deck. Here as well, the most difficult aspect of all is their worsening psychological condition.
Today, the leaders of the Sea Watch NGO held a press conference in Berlin to outline the facts of the situation. Yesterday, their spokesperson in Italy, Giorgia Linardi, responded to allegations coming from the Palazzo Chigi and from Transport Minister Toninelli about alleged irregularities in the rescue that occurred off the coast of Libya: “None of the facts alleged by the Italian government represents a violation of international law,” said Linardi. “The boat aboard which the migrants were found had not yet sunk, and that was a good thing—however, it did not have the features of a seaworthy vessel according to the characteristics specified by the Frontex regulations.”
No amount of explanations, however, have been able to convince the Italian Interior Minister to budge even an inch—not even the warnings issued by doctors about the health conditions of the migrants. Salvini also rejected the possibility of accepting only the women and children on Italian soil, as proposed by Prime Minister Conte and his fellow vice-prime minister, Di Maio: “That would be a concession that would send the message to traffickers, ‘10 migrants today, 15 tomorrow…’,” said Salvini, cynical as always.