Reportage. Two NGO ships have been stranded off Sicily for over a week. ‘It’s a political quarantine, a pretext to keep us away from rescue operations.’

Italy’s ‘political quarantine’ of ships carrying rescued migrants

Two ships have been stranded for days in Sicilian waters, with their crews in quarantine. However, no cases of coronavirus infection have been recorded on board, nor are there any people showing symptoms that might indicate the disease. 

The ships are the Ocean Viking, belonging to the NGOs Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranée, and the Sea Watch 3, belonging to the German NGO of the same name. They are located in front of the ports of Pozzallo and Messina, and have been stranded there from Feb. 23 and 27, respectively.

“It’s a political quarantine, a pretext to keep us away from rescue operations,” says Gennaro Giudetti, cultural mediator for Sea Watch. Giudetti and the other 21 crew members have been at anchor 500 meters off Messina for five days now, and will have to remain there until March 12. The 194 migrants they rescued in three different operations between Feb. 19 and 24 have been disembarked and quarantined in the Gasparro military base, which has become a de facto migrant hotspot in the Sicilian city. 

All the people on board have been checked with thermal scanners, which can measure body temperature remotely, but none of them have shown any symptoms of particular concern.

“We from the crew weren’t even supposed to disembark in Italy, the plan was to continue towards Albania to carry out some work on the ship and prepare for the new mission,” Giudetti tells us. “Instead, we are here, we see the lights of Messina but we can’t disembark. When we told the rescued people that they need to undergo quarantine on the shore, they were happy, they thought it was a measure to protect them from the coronavirus that is here in Italy. But actually…”

The humanitarian organizations immediately stressed that there have been no similar provisions taken for the other ships that are docking in Italy on a daily basis. “This action seems to target SAR NGO ships only, as other ships in Italian ports do not meet the same fate,” wrote SOS Mediterranée on Twitter. In another tweet, the NGO stressed that the crew has respected all the preventive measures indicated by the authorities, but that for now there was no reason to believe that anyone among the crew members had contracted the virus.

Sea Watch took a similar position: “Besides the Ocean Viking we are the only ship that arrived in Italy and has been quarantined. We accept medical precautions, but the fact that they only apply to rescue vessels suggests that the purpose is not to contain diseases but to prevent us from rescuing people in distress at sea,” the NGO wrote on Facebook.

With the two ships stuck in quarantine and those of other NGOs still in preparations for new missions, at the moment there are no humanitarian boats active in the Mediterranean Sea working to rescue those who are fleeing Libya. This situation is increasing the risk of people losing their lives on the most lethal route among those taken by migrants.

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