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Migrants and refugees from different African nationalities wait for assistance aboard an overcrowded wooden boat, as aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms approach them in the Mediterranean Sea, Feb. 12, 2021.Bruno Thevenin/The Associated Press

In pre-dawn hours early this week, the German rescue ship Sea-Watch 4, laden with 455 migrants, docked at Trapani in western Sicily, two days after its crew warned that the vessel was at full capacity and in urgent need of a safe harbour. The ship had completed six rescue operations in the previous 48 hours.

The embarkation stood out not just because of the high number of rescued migrants but because of its rarity.

After Sea-Watch 4 reached shore, no other rescue ship was plying the waters between Libya and Italy, widely considered the world’s most dangerous migrant route, even though the UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) had warned that a couple of thousand migrants were known to be fleeing North Africa in recent days. They would arrive in small unseaworthy boats – or possibly not arrive at all.

Sea arrivals to Italy in 2021

=1,000 sea arrivals

Country of

disembarkation

CORSICA

ITALY

SARDINIA

Sant’Antioco

GREECE

SICILY

ALGERIA

TURKEY

Augusta

682

287

LAMPEDUSA

LEBANON

TUNISIA

Med.

Sea

11

2,514

OTHER

LIBYA

218

0

250

6,302

KM

EGYPT

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; unhcr

Sea arrivals to Italy in 2021

=1,000 sea arrivals

Country of

disembarkation

CORSICA

ITALY

SARDINIA

Sant’Antioco

GREECE

SICILY

ALGERIA

TURKEY

Augusta

682

287

LAMPEDUSA

LEBANON

TUNISIA

Med.

Sea

11

2,514

OTHER

LIBYA

218

0

250

6,302

KM

EGYPT

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; unhcr

Sea arrivals to Italy in 2021

=1,000 sea arrivals

Country of

disembarkation

CORSICA

ITALY

SARDINIA

Sant’Antioco

Santa

Maria

di Leuca

GREECE

SICILY

Trapani

ALGERIA

TURKEY

Augusta

287

682

LAMPEDUSA

LEBANON

TUNISIA

Mediterranean

Sea

11

2,514

OTHER

218

LIBYA

0

250

6,302

KM

EGYPT

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; unhcr

A few of the German, Spanish and Italian rescue ships were in harbour for maintenance but others were, in effect, prevented from leaving Italian ports due to inspection delays that the charities consider bureaucratic harassment designed to prevent them from aiding migrants. Sea-Watch 4 itself was placed in detention last September on what the Sea-Watch charity called “flimsy grounds,” including carrying too many life jackets, not too few, and an allegedly inadequate sewage system.

The detention of the 61-metre former cargo ship was not lifted by a Sicilian court until early March. In the meantime, its sister ship, Sea-Watch 3, has been stuck in the Sicilian port of Augusta since March, after it made five rescue missions between Sicily and Libya, saving 363 migrants.

A member of the German charity Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship team helps a young migrant board a dinghy during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, Feb. 26, 2021.Selene Magnolia/Sea-Watch/Reuters

The Italian port authorities and coast guard claim the inspections are legitimate controls to ensure maritime safety, all the more so since most charity ships are old vessels, according to numerous media reports. Government ministers have said there is no political motivation behind the ship detentions and that their only goal is ensure the security of the crew and passengers.

The charities claim that the inspections and subsequent detentions are deliberate efforts to prevent the ships from saving lives, making them pawns in the European Union’s evolving migrant strategy, which has hardened against asylum seekers in recent years with the rise of populist, anti-migrant parties.

Some anti-migrant politicians, including Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right League party, insist that the rescue ships act as a magnet for migrants and encourage the careers of the notoriously inhumane Libyan traffickers, who sell spots on clapped-out fishing boats and rafts that have no chance of surviving a storm.

Then opposition leader Matteo Salvini speaks at the end of the debate at the Italian Senate in Rome on Feb. 12, 2020.Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press

Earlier this month, a Sicilian judged ordered Mr. Salvini to stand trial on kidnapping charges for having prevented the Open Arms rescue ship from docking at an Italian port in 2019, keeping the 147 migrants it had rescued at sea until the standoff ended 19 days later. At the time, Mr. Salvini was interior minister and plotting to become prime minister. “I’m going on trial for this, for having defended my country,” he said last month.

Proactiva Open Arms, the Spanish charity that operates the 37-metre Open Arms, says the apparently arbitrary ship detentions are now routine for all the rescue charities. Open Arms is in detention in the port of Pozzallo, in southeast Sicily – its third effective banishment from the high seas since 2018.

“All the [charities] are in the same position,” Riccardo Gatti, head of mission for Open Arms and director of Open Arms Italia, said in an interview. “The detentions are obviously ways to block our vessels. All of our vessels are in perfect condition but the inspectors check everything, even the temperature of the fridges.”

Migrants rest aboard the Ocean Viking during its navigation in the Mediterranean Sea on April 30, 2021.Flavio Gasperini/The Associated Press

Ships are being detained as the migrant crossings from Libya are increasing, as they do every spring when temperatures rise. This season is proving to be especially prolific – and deadly. The UNHCR said that total sea arrivals from January through April 2 were 10,014, up 183 per cent from same period in 2020. More than half the migrants were from Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Bangladesh and Guinea.

The precise number of deaths is unknown, though is thought to be at least 611 between the start of January and May 4, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The fatalities are more than double than those in the same period in 2020.

The worst incident this year happened in late April, when about 130 migrants died off the coast of Libya amid claims from the charities that distress calls were not acted upon by Libyan, Maltese or Italian coast guard vessels. When the charity rescue ship Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Méditerranée, arrived on the scene, it found only floating corpses.

“For two days, the NGO Alarm Phone, which is responsible for sending distress calls to the relevant maritime rescue centres in the Mediterranean region, had been calling on states to uphold their responsibility towards these people and send rescue vessels,” said IOM spokeswoman Safa Msehli. “Unfortunately, that has not happened.”

Mr. Gatti said that Italian port authorities are not the only ones who give rescue ships a hard time. Malta and Greece, he added, also see the ships as migrant taxis and don’t want them at sea. In 2017, the elapsed time between disembarking migrants in a safe port and leaving for the next rescue mission was about 15 days. Today, with the two-week quarantine period and the inevitable detention, ship captains are lucky to return to sea within two months, he said.

“It’s really difficult to get back to sea, and we really don’t know how many migrants are dying,” he said. “But we know they are dying.”

Open Arms vessel with 107 migrants on board is anchored off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy on Aug. 19, 2019.Salvatore Cavalli/The Associated Press

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