'Migrants never disappeared': the lone rescue ship braving a pandemic

Lorenzo Tondo

After a two-month break, the Alan Kurdi migrant rescue boat is heading back out into the central Mediterranean, as asylum seekers continue to attempt the desperate journey to reach Europe despite coronavirus fears.

The boat, operated by the German NGO Sea-Eye, left the Spanish port of Castellón de la Plana on Tuesday and is expected to reach waters off the coast of Libya this weekend.

“It wasn’t easy to put together a crew in this current crisis due to the spread of Covid-19,” says Sea-Eye’s mission manager, Jan Ribbeck. “But we are taking extra security precautions and have established an outbreak management plan.

“You see, this pandemic will be over at some point. But migration will not, and asylum seekers will continue to risk their lives. We cannot turn away, especially at this time, when media attention is focused almost exclusively on other problems.”

Alan Kurdi, named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in 2015, is currently the only NGO rescue boat operating in the central Mediterranean. The coronavirus outbreak has forced many charities to concentrate their aid efforts in European countries affected.

The virus has landed in Europe and the spotlight on some phenomena seems to have gone out

Matteo Villa, Italian Institute for International Political Studies

According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, almost 800 people departed from Libya in March. A total of 43 disembarked in Italy, in the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, while about 155 have landed in Malta. The rest were captured at sea by the Libyan coast guard and have been deported back to Libya.

“The virus has landed in Europe and the spotlight on some phenomena seems to have gone out,” says Matteo Villa, a research fellow from the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a migration thinktank.

“But the migrants never disappeared: thousands are stuck on the Greek islands, others on the border between Greece and Turkey. From countries like Tunisia and Algeria, people have postponed the trip for fear of coronavirus. But in Libya, the detention centres are scarier than the virus.”

There have been few confirmed cases of coronavirus in Libya so far. But what will happen if the virus spreads among migrants?

“Testing for Covid-19 is currently centralised and limited,” says Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean.

“Theoretically refugees and migrants in urban areas can access it, but we are not aware of any being actually tested. A case of an asylum seeker suspected of Covid-19 turned out to be negative. Many people displaced by the conflict are particularly fragile, as well as refugees and migrants who live in sub-standard shelter conditions. Those currently living in detention centres are already confronting the risk of TB and would be very vulnerable to coronavirus.”

Crew members of the Alan Kurdi rescue ship prepare for a memorial service to commemorate the fourth anniversary last September of the death of the Syrian child migrant after whom the vessel is named. Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

The UNHCR announced last week that it would suspend some activities in Libya and stop making visits to detention centres until staff are given personal protective equipment. Phone counselling and outreach to refugee community leaders will increase, said the agency.

“Libya is in the midst of worsening conflict, which has impacted healthcare and medical services – which already had limited financial resources – and [there are] often shortages of basic equipment and medicines,” says Cochetel. “Refugees/asylum seekers, as well migrants, also often struggle to access official medical centres, as they do not have legal documentation.”

With the international community distracted by the coronavirus outbreak, fighting in Libya has intensified. Libyan armed factions have defied the UN’s call for a “global ceasefire” and last week fighting escalated across the country, with forces loyal to eastern warlord Gen Khalifa Haftar claiming to have gained control of a string of towns in the north-west.

As always in conflicts, it is the most vulnerable who pay the biggest price. Thousands of migrants remain stuck in Libyan detention centres, where they are subjected to torture and abuse. According to the UNHCR, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on departures by sea from Libya is not yet clear. Certainly, given the absence of NGO rescue boats, attempting to reach Europe from North Africa has become increasingly risky in recent months.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus emergency, many charities committed to saving migrants in the central Mediterranean have temporarily abandoned their activities at sea and transferred their resources, including doctors and other health workers, to European hospitals. Long attacked by the Italian government and affected by unjustified judicial investigations, teams from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms are providing support to the Italian health authorities.

MSF staff are based in four hospitals in areas of the northern Italian province of Lodi, part of Lombardy, the country’s worst-hit region. Even Open Arms doctors are now on the frontlines in Italian hospitals, including Bergamo. Mediterranea Saving Humans, an Italian NGO normally engaged in the rescue of migrants at sea, has launched a “telephone emergency room” for psychological support in areas worst affected by Covid-19.

With the German NGO Sea-Watch waiting to return to sea – their boat is moored in Sicily – the only ship currently operating in the central Mediterranean is the Alan Kurdi.

Related: NGOs raise alarm as coronavirus strips support from EU refugees

“We have set up booths for the isolation of any patients with symptoms of Covid-19 or tuberculosis,’’ says Ribbeck. “We cannot do the tests onboard because the swabs must be shipped to specialised centres. But we are prepared to face the emergency.”

The most difficult task, however, will be finding a safe haven in Europe to take migrants rescued at sea. Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, said during a recent conference call to the EU’s foreign affairs council that the country is unable to open its ports to migrants at the present time. “It’s not about wanting to be good or bad,” said Di Maio. “Italy can’t just do it now.”

“We respect the national fate of all European countries fighting against this pandemic and especially the situation facing Italy,” says Ribbeck. “No state in the Mediterranean should be left alone on the question of reception of refugees in the coronavirus crisis. We will address our flag state if it should become necessary.”