Italy: MSF ship carrying 700 rescuees not authorised to land

17 Jul 2015
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Despite lengthy discussions with Italian authorities and efforts by the Italian Coastguards, a Médecins Sans Frontiéres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) rescue ship was not authorised to disembark 700 migrants in Sicily due to a lack of capacity in the reception system.

MSF's Bourbon Argos ship is currently navigating the northern coast of Sicily with about 700 people on board, towards the port of Reggio Calabria, where it should land Saturday early morning.

On Wednesday 15 July the Bourbon Argos rescued 678 people from six different boats and received one more patient transferred for medical reasons from an Italian Coastguards' vessel.

Among the migrants rescued were people from Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia.

Serious security concerns on board

“The MSF team has worked round the clock and has provided care to those needing medical attention. The vessel is completely overcrowded and the migrants are staying on the deck in a very limited space,” says Alexander Buchman, Médecins Sans Frontiéres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) coordinator on the Bourbon Argos.

“For the last 24 hours this has caused tensions between the people and posed serious security concerns aboard the vessel.”

Despite good coordination with the Italian Coastguards and all the efforts done by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), Italian authorities did not authorise the Bourbon Argos to disembark in any of the Sicilian ports due to lack of capacity of the reception system.

On Thursday evening, MSF was finally given permission to disembark 150 migrants out of the 700 in the port of Trapani, on the Western coast of Sicily. However, MSF decided not to proceed with a partial disembarkation as in such an overcrowded environment it could pose serious security risks.

Many of the people on board expressed their fear of being “brought back to Libya” and the situation on board was already extremely tense.

Urgent disembarkation

Only seven patients who needed urgent medical attention were disembarked, together with their family relatives.

Two cases were particularly serious: an adult female, transferred from the Italian coastguard vessel, suffered from hypertension and hypovolemia with abdominal pain, and needed urgent medical care; and a 12-month child with pneumonia, fever and dyspnea, to whom MSF provided antibiotic treatment.

“For two days, we have been trying to understand where we would be allowed to land, coordinating and working round the clock with the Italian Coastguards, while having to maintain an acceptable level of security on board,” adds Buchman. “This caused serious security risks aboard the vessel and forced 700 people in distress to spend two entire nights on the deck in very difficult conditions.”

On Friday morning, after lengthy negotiations, the Bourbon Argos was directed to the port of Messina, Eastern Sicily. This decision was eventually changed a few hours later and the final destination is now Reggio Calabria.

The Bourbon Argos is currently navigating the northern coast of Sicily – so as to keep the Italian shores in sight and not feed fears among the migrants on board – and is due to arrive to Reggio Calabria on Saturday morning early.

“The lack of preparedness of the Italian reception system is having very concrete consequences that we are seeing first hand,” adds Loris De Filippi, President of MSF Italy.

“We are in July, and the arrivals are not likely to stop anytime soon, so this problem has to be addressed now.

"Concretely, the Ministry of Interior has to allow disembarkation in the closest Sicilian ports in order to allow vessels to return as quickly as possible to the search and rescue zone to carry out further rescues.”

Find out more about MSF's work in the Mediterranean