Ocean Viking to Disembark Migrants After "State of Emergency"

Officials confer aboard Ocean Viking (image courtesy Laurence Bondard / SOS Mediterranee)

Published Jul 5, 2020 3:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

After multiple appeals and days of waiting, Italy has given the green light for the migrant rescue ship Ocean Viking to enter port and offload nearly 200 rescuees. The reversal comes after Ocean Viking's operator declared a "state of emergency" on board due to a series of suicide attempts. 

"The ship has finally received instructions to proceed to Porto Empedocle, Sicily. The 180 survivors will be disembarked in the port tomorrow," said operator SOS Mediterranee in a social media post. "The unnecessary delay of this disembarkation has put lives at risk."

A doctor representing the Italian government boarded the vessel Saturday to evaluate and verify SOS Mediterranee's claim of a mental health crisis on board. The NGO said that the doctor verified the situation and determined a degree of  "enormous psychological discomfort on the ship such as to consider the situation almost out of control, for guests and crew." 

Prior to disembarkation, Italian authorities administered COVID-19 tests to the rescuees. After a previous round of disembarkation from the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, 28 individuals tested positive for the disease aboard a quarantine ship at Porto Empedocle.

Italy's government operates a migrant quarantine facility on board a chartered ferry, the Moby Zaza. The individuals aboard Ocean Viking will be transferred to this vessel. “The situation is carefully monitored in view of the transhipment of migrants, scheduled for Monday . . . on the Moby Zaza ship,” Italy's interior ministry said in a statement. 

Challenging situation

Ocean Viking took the 180 maritime migrants aboard in a series of rescues from June 25-30. She appealed to Italy and to Malta for a port of refuge to offload the rescuees, but the requests were initially declined or left unanswered. 

According to SOS Mediterranee, 44 individuals on board were "in a state of acute mental distress" and expressed intentions to "inflict harm both on themselves and on others, including members of the crew." Last week, six attempted suicide: two jumped over the side on Thursday and had to be rescued; another three displayed intent to go overboard but were restrained; and one additional individual attempted to hang himself Friday morning. 

The NGO attributed the crisis on board to the delay in obtaining a port of refuge and the uncertainty about when the migrants might be able to disembark.

"The concerning behavior and decline of mental health of some of the 180 survivors onboard our vessel are a direct result of the unnecessary extended stand-off at sea and lack of solution for their disembarkation," wrote SOS Mediterranee in an appeal. "A ship at sea is not a safe place for survivors who have just endured a near-death experience on an unseaworthy dinghy."