Italian Officials Detain NGO Rescue Vessel After Port Inspection

NGO SAR vessel detained in Italy after port inspection
Geo Barents detailed in Sicily (Pablo Garrigos photo courtesy of MSF)

Published Jul 5, 2021 3:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

A ship chartered by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières - MSF) has been detained by Italian authorities after a coast guard inspection identified numerous safety issues aboard the Norwegian-flagged vessel. While saying that it is ready to make the necessary steps to get the vessel back to sea, the medical NGO is also accusing the authorities of pursuing political objectives under the guise of inspections as a means to interrupt their work with migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean.

The charity arranged a charter of the 1,293 dwt research survey ship Geo Barents in May 2021 from the Norwegian shipping company Uksnoy Barents. Built in 2007, the vessel is classed by Bureau Veritas and records show that its certificates have been amended to include a class notation for up to 300 survivors. A review of previous inspections shows no recent violations and a history of minor violations such as expired charts, worn or missing safety gear.

MSF reports that the current contract for the vessel is registered and fully compliant with the standards of national, international, and maritime regulations. The Geo Barents, they said in their statement meets all the technical and legal requirements to sail and perform SARe at sea and has been fully equipped to perform SAR, with a medical clinic and recovery rooms.

Following a 14-hour inspection in the port of Augusta on the island of Sicily, on July 2, the Geo Barents was detained. MSF admits that it was after 22 deficiencies were identified, 10 of which were reportedly grounds for the ship to be detained. In addition to a series of minor irregularities that are easily rectifiable, MSF says the Italian authorities disputed the ship’s suitability to carry out systematic search and rescue activities and allege that the ship had too many people on board. 

“International law does not stipulate specific international classification for humanitarian rescue ships,” MSF said in a written statement. “Such a disingenuous interpretation of maritime law disregards the fact that rescue operations, as per the duty of shipmasters to provide assistance to people in distress at sea, are uncontrollable situations. Therefore, the number of people on board should not be taken into account for the purpose of ascertaining the compliance to other provisions of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.”

The Geo Barents has been operating in the Mediterranean since June. Between June 10 and 12, MSF says the ship performed a series of rescues. A total of 410 people, all of whom showed signs of extreme exhaustion and various vulnerabilities, were taken aboard according to the NGO. They said this included 16 women, of whom six were traveling alone and one was pregnant, as well as 101 unaccompanied children. Most people were from war-torn countries, including Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Mali.

"While port state controls are legitimate maritime procedures, developed to ensure the safety of navigation at sea, these inspections have been instrumentalized by state authorities to target NGO ships in a discriminatory way," said Duccio Staderini, MSF search and rescue representative. "We can therefore only conclude that this is politically motivated. Inspections of NGO vessels in Italian ports are long and thorough, aiming at finding irregularities in order to prevent the ship from returning to sea to save lives. We are faced with a crushing reality: while humanitarian NGO vessels are detained, lives continue to be needlessly lost in the Mediterranean."

The group alleges that since 2019, the Italian authorities have conducted 16 Port State Controls on humanitarian rescue vessels, leading to administrative detention on 13 occasions. In total, they said that these vessels had been detained for a total of over 1,000 days. At present, MSF says the Ocean Viking, run by the organization SOS Mediterranee, is the only rescue ship operational in the central Mediterranean. Five NGO search and rescue vessels (Sea-Watch 4, Sea-Watch 3, Sea-Eye 4, Louise Michel, and Geo Barents) are all currently under administrative detention. 

MSF said it is dedicated to its mission and is calling upon the Italian authorities to swiftly facilitate the release of its search and rescue ship, to enable its return to sea as soon as possible.