Legal Drama Over Mediterranean Rescue Unfolds in Real Time

Crew from the humanitarian ship Aquarius rescue a group of migrants off the coast of Libya on Sept. 20, 2018. (SOS Mediterranee/Medecins sans Frontieres)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – A human and legal drama unfolded at sea and for the world to follow online Thursday as a humanitarian ship reported in real time the rescue of 10 men and a boy off the coast of Libya.

The rescue details, including correspondence between the nongovernmental ship and government officials, opened a new window onto a contentious legal theater: the Mediterranean Sea and what happens to the refugees and immigrants rescued there.

This year has seen an intensifying clash between nongovernmental humanitarian ships and European authorities over the plight of asylum seekers seeking to cross the Mediterranean in dangerously ill-equipped vessels for a better life in Europe.

Thursday’s rescue involved the Aquarius, a rescue vessel that made headlines in June when Italy’s new right-wing and anti-immigrant interior minister blocked it from bringing 629 people it had rescued to an Italian port.

The Aquarius returned to the waters off the coast of Libya on Tuesday equipped with a new tool: a Web portal where the humanitarian vessel is providing information about its operations virtually as they happen. The Web portal is https://onboard-aquarius.org/

The groups running the vessel, SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières, say the online logbook gives them “more capacity to testify about what they witness at sea.”

The NGOs say they want to show the public the legal framework in which the rescues are taking place.

Moritz Baumgärtel, a law professor at University College Roosevelt in the Netherlands, said in an email that NGOs have increasingly used technology to gather evidence for legal fights.

He said nongovernmental rescue groups are seeking to be “transparent to protect themselves against potential clashes escalating.”

Humanitarian groups have stepped up efforts to rescue people crossing the Mediterranean Sea and ceased wide-scale rescue operations as European nations, particularly Italy, have hardened their stances toward asylum seekers.

File photo of the Aquarius. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic, file)

Thursday’s rescue started at about 8 a.m., according to the Aquarius log, when a boat with asylum-seekers was spotted. Fishing boats also were heard on the radio talking about a “migrant boat,” the log says.

By 8:30 a.m., the Aquarius reported that it had found a small fiberglass boat with people aboard.

The Aquarius contacted a Joint Rescue Coordination Center run by the Libyan coast guard. No response. The Aquarius then contacted the Italian coast guard to let them know the rescue was underway.

The Aquarius rescued the people aboard the boat, most of whom are “physically or mentally deeply traumatized,” according to the log. It also reported that their boat was taking on water, was not seaworthy and the passengers were without lifejackets.

At 11:17 a.m., the Libyan rescue center wrote an email to the Aquarius saying that Libyan authorities will take over the rescue and take the immigrants, according to the log.

The Aquarius responded to the Libyan coast guard that it would not comply with its command because Libyan ports are not “a place of safety for the survivors.”

The Aquarius added that that it would not transfer the rescued people because of the “risk of panic.”

Presumably, this was because the people rescued at sea would not want to be sent, or returned to Libya.

SOS Mediterranee did not immediately respond to Courthouse News’ request for comment Thursday.

Libya has been in a state of civil war and chaos since the regime of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi was brought down by rebel fighters with the help of NATO-led airstrikes in 2011.

Many asylum-seekers who cross the Mediterranean say they endured extremely harsh conditions in Libya. Reports of asylum-seekers being killed, tortured, beaten and forced into while in Libya are common.

By 1:36 p.m., the Aquarius reported that it would seek another port where it can disembark the people its rescued.

As of Thursday afternoon in Europe, the vessel was still awaiting word about where it should take the rescued.

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