While the Ocean Viking has been detained under administrative issues, due to the pandemic, some European countries, including Greece, shut their asylum services for months and others, like the Netherlands, also suspended asylum claims. In Italy, centers meant to house asylum seekers have reportedly been so full that some have had to leave the quarantine spaces.
In Greece, just under 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers are living in the infamously overcrowded refugee camps on its eastern Aegean islands. While movement restrictions imposed on March 23rd ended for the local population in May and the country has opened up to tourism, lockdown has continued for most of the refugee camps in the country.
Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, notes that the pandemic has quickened the pace of authorities targeting solidarity efforts like search-and-rescue ships. “Over the last couple of years, there have been a number of steps taken by governments, especially at the external side of the EU, to prevent ships from rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, [ranging] from criminal investigations to administrative measures,” she says. “The bottom line is: Governments have used different kinds of approaches in order to prevent rescue boats from going back to sea. COVID has sped up and exacerbated a process that had already started long before.”
Migrant, asylum seeker, refugee—all are labels given to people on the move in search of a better life. These labels often belie the humanity of those who cross countries, continents, and treacherous oceans to find some sense of stability.
Adam is one of those: A 19-year-old who traveled from South Sudan, he spent a year in various prisons in Libya. He was rescued by the Ocean Viking in August 2019. His story epitomizes what so many look for when they put their feet in unseaworthy boats on the Libyan coast, looking toward Europe. “When I arrive to Europe. I just want to be happy,” he says. “To continue studying science or become a doctor but most importantly, to be happy.”
For Alessandro Porro, it is clear that Europe must have a robust rescue-at-sea system. “The numbers show the evidence that people are dying at sea: It’s not a political debate.” For now, Europe wrestles with its conscience, and debates about immigration checks, deportations, and higher fences rage. In the meantime, the Ocean Viking sits silently on the edge of the continent, staring out at a sea in which so many are still losing their lives.