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Migrant Rescue Vessel Drifts Without Access to Port

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Image courtesy Sea-Eye

By MarEx 2019-04-11 13:42:40

Eight days after rescuing 64 migrants off the coast of Libya, the humanitarian aid vessel Alan Kurdi is still seeking a port to disembark the survivors. 

Consistent with past practice, Italy and Malta have denied the Kurdi permission to enter port, and the vessel's operator has been forced to seek accommodation from other EU member states. So far, no port state has stepped forward. 

Two female rescuees were evacuated by Maltese forces this week for medical reasons, including one pregnant woman. 62 individuals remain on board, and the Kurdi's crew have been permitted to make resupply runs to Malta with a small boat in order to provide them with food and water. 

The nation where the migrants disembark typically bears primary responsibility for providing them with assistance, and after years of relatively high arrival numbers, African migration has become a political flash point in Europe. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party and Italy's current interior minister, has closed Italian ports to vessels carrying rescuees - a policy that has proven politically successful. As of March, polling showed that League was the first choice of 34 percent of Italians, making it the most popular political party in Italy. Salvini himself has an approval rating of nearly 60 percent, making him the most popular politician in the country. 

Salvini insists that rescued migrants in the central Mediterranean should be returned to Libya, their point of departure. However, the UN does not consider Libya to be a safe place for disembarkation due to the widespread and well-documented abuse of migrants in Libyan detention facilities. 

Since the masters of commercial vessels are legally required to rescue people in distress and disembark them at a port of safety, this poses a challenge for merchant shipping. Any freighter that rescues migrants off Libya might have difficulty offloading them: In Europe, they would be refused, and in Libya, it could be technically unlawful (and potentially difficult) to get them to leave the vessel. Any attempt to head to Libya might also carry the risk of a migrant revolt on board, as in the case of the Elhiblu 1, which was allegedly forced by rescuees to head for Malta. 

According to Sea Eye, the operator of the Alan Kurdi, this gives merchant vessels a significant disincentive. "In the commercial shipping industry, the boats make a wide bypass to avoid having to rescue people," alleged Carlotta Weibl, a spokesperson for Sea Eye, speaking to Deutsche Welle.