Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo

Safe Passage

Words by Katy Fallon

Photographs by Alessia Rollo

Over the last six years, more than 15,000 refugees have perished while traversing the Mediterranean Sea, seeking safety on foreign shores. Search-and-rescue operation SOS Mediterranée saves countless lives—but thanks to a pandemic and political standoffs, ships like the Ocean Viking are sitting empty at port.

Blue waters lap the sides of an imposingly red-hulled ship docked in the harbor of Porto Empedocle on the southwest coast of the island of Sicily. This Italian island is beloved by many for its baroque architecture, rich gastronomic traditions, and aquamarine beaches. In recent years, however, it has become a hub for search-and rescue operations for people in distress in the Mediterranean.


The large crimson boat in the harbor is an important part of Sicily’s story of migration: It is the Ocean Viking, one of the few search-and-rescue vessels left in the Mediterranean. Now, it is detained indefinitely in the port of Empedocle.


Along with Malta, Sicily is one of the closest European landmasses to Libya, which in recent years, has become the gateway country for those attempting to flee to Europe. It is also one of the deadliest migration routes in the world: Over 15,000 have perished on this path since 2014. This year alone, according to the International Organization for Migration, over 300 people have died. In August, at least 45 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, including 5 children, after the ship’s engine exploded.


Italian authorities have stopped the Ocean Viking from going back out to sea because they say it has failed certain necessary safety checks and claim it has been carrying more people than permitted. It is not the only search-and-rescue boat to meet this fate: The Sea-Watch 3 has also been detained in the same port.

Ocean Viking ship Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
Red ship Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo

SOS Mediterranée, the NGO that operates the Ocean Viking, is calling on authorities to release their ship, pointing to the mounting death toll in the Mediterranean and highlighting that the same vessel recently passed almost identical inspections without any issues.


2020 has been a time of unprecedented events, and the pandemic has aggravated an already volatile environment. In recent years, there have been a number of standoffs between NGOs and European governments, which have been accused by NGOs of imposing arbitrary restrictions on their search-and-rescue operations. In 2019, Sea-Watch claimed that the Dutch government was trying to hinder their work and changed their registration from the Netherlands to Germany. In April of this year, Italy and Malta both declared their ports unsafe due to COVID-19. This state of emergency temporarily closed ports to NGO-run search-and-rescue vessels. Although the situation in both countries has improved, many of these restrictions continue to be in place.


In spite of everything, people are still trying to seek refuge on European shores. Poverty, unrest, and war—all significant factors that push people from their homes—do not stop for a pandemic. But the way to Europe is treacherous, and there remains no centralized search-and-rescue operation for European member states.


The narratives of those rescued by SOS Mediterranée tell a larger story about the value of these ships—and the void they leave when detained.

Cargo shipment Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
Green walkway Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo

Maimouna, who is 17 years old, was among the 274 people rescued in February of this year by the Ocean Viking. Originally from the Ivory Coast, she fled her home fearing that her daughter would be subjected to the same female genital mutilation that she had experienced. “I know how it feels,” she explains. “I did not accept it for my daughter.” She made her way to Libya with her husband, but on arrival, she, her husband, and her daughter were put in detention centers. “In prison, we were beaten up,” she says. “Women are treated very badly there. Oftentimes, a man you wouldn’t even know would catch and rape you. If you refuse, he’d kill you. There’s nothing you can do about it.” She was detained many times in the country for no credible reason. “I had to carry my child with me when I was outside, so when we were caught, I was with her. I was in prison three times with my baby,” she recalls. “My husband managed to work when he wasn’t locked up. We paid with that money to get out of prison. He worked in construction. He had to do it to feed his family.”


The crossing in February was their fourth attempt to flee Libya. “Can you imagine all that time on the water? Lots of prayers. We cried and cried. With children on top of that. It was hard. You think of everything that could happen. We could die at sea. Anyway, I’d rather drown than be caught by the Libyan [Coast Guard].”


Maimouna is adamant that no price is too high to pay. “We are ready to die to protect our child,” she says. “She’s the reason we did all this.”


Mohammed, a 23-year-old originally from Pakistan, was rescued along with his brother and two friends by the Ocean Viking in June after two nights at sea. He had already spent 20 months in Libya and felt that he had run out of options. He had been working in construction, but when he tried to renew his visa, he was provided with fake papers instead. Knowing that presenting these at an airport would get him arrested, he had limited options. “At some point, even though it would have been dangerous for us to go back to Pakistan, we were considering this option,” he remembers. “It is better to suffer near your family than far away. And Libya was constant suffering.” He and his brother finally decided that they could only leave via the sea. “The only way for us to escape this country was to flee by boat. There were no other options.”

Sea landscapeBlue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
Birds migrating in the sky by Alessia Rollo
Ship deck Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
SOS Méditeranée Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo

The Ocean Viking has performed just one mission since the pandemic began. That mission made headlines in July as the ship sought safe harbor with the 180 people the crew had rescued. They waited 11 days before finally being given permission to dock in Porto Empedocle. During this time, the mental health of those rescued severely deteriorated. Two jumped overboard, and the crew recorded six suicide attempts. A request for medical evacuation went unanswered until a state of emergency was declared on board on July 3rd.


“This was definitely the worst I’ve ever experienced,” says Dominika Wanczyk, the head of the medical team during July’s mission. “I think what was difficult was that we were working nonstop trying to meet the physical and psychological needs and, especially in the last days, trying to keep the situation calm.”


The ship had already been prepared for a mission during a pandemic, including quarantines for the crew before and after and the allocation of different zones to avoid contamination. Regardless, the team on the Ocean Viking are always prepared to rescue people with bad medical conditions. “You get people who have chronic illness who haven’t been able to get healthcare,” says Wanczyk. “They have untreated high blood pressure or arthritis and a lot of things that also reflect the poor hygiene conditions they’ve been living in: like scabies and other skin infections, abscesses, old wounds, and quite a few with old violence-related injuries, like burns or fractures, that haven’t healed properly.”


Some, she says, are victims of torture and have marks on their bodies from electrocution and other forms of violence. It was people’s state of mind, however, that became the most pressing issue on the last mission, according to Wanczyk. “The biggest thing we were treating was people’s mental health. People were in severe psychological distress. One of the guys who jumped overboard said, ‘You know, my family thinks that I’m dead so I might as well be.’”

Life jackets Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
Harbor reflection Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
Ship window relfection Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
Ship at sunset Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo

Initially, their calls for a safe port went unanswered. “After the first rescue, we requested a place of safety, but we didn’t have a response,” explains Wanczyk. “And then it was during this time that we were alerted of other boats in distress, so of course, we were going to go and help.” But survivors were troubled by the length of time on the boat with no end in sight. “What was making them really distressed was the uncertainty and the unknown period of time that we were going to be at sea as they waited for a response from authorities.”


“This isn’t the first time we have had a standoff,” Wanczyk notes. “But in this case, it escalated because of the people and the stories that they were telling us. A lot of them were really distressed that they hadn’t been able to contact their families for many days, and they knew their families would assume that they were dead.”


The Ocean Viking finally declared a state of emergency after hearing no response from the authorities. An Italian doctor eventually came on board to gauge the situation and agreed with the NGO’s assessment. Two days later, they were finally given port in Empedocle, at which point, those rescued were quarantined on another cruise ship in the harbor. “We felt really uncomfortable with the fact that it was so clearly expressed that their distress was linked to being on a ship and that, after this traumatic experience, they were going to be put on another ship,” says Wanczyk.


Alessandro Porro, a member of the search-and-rescue team, was on board in July, on his seventh mission. Having worked as a paramedic in Italy—at one point, the worst affected European country by the coronavirus—he was already somewhat prepared. “I’ve been on duty three times a week with COVID patients, so I know how to answer these kinds of patients,” he says.


For Porro, it is quite clear why the Ocean Viking is a necessity: “European states are not doing their job of rescuing people at sea,” he explains. “We started the job five years ago, when the political context was very different, but still there was not a single European asset that was dedicated to rescue at sea in areas where there was a high risk of mass casualties.”

Ship first aid symbol Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo
Ship door with hand Blue cargo shipment by Alessia Rollo

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.

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