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EU/Italy: Port Closures Cut Migrant and Refugee Lifeline

States Should Allow Rescue Boats to Land, While Protecting Health

Crew work seen on the Alan Kurdi rescue ship, operated by German charity Sea Eye. The Alan Kurdi rescue ship currently has 150 rescued people on board but is being prevented from docking in any European port. © 2020 Sally Hayden/AP Images

(Milan) – European governments’ actions to close their ports to people rescued at sea puts lives at risk and cannot be justified on public health grounds, Human Rights Watch said today. The imperative to protect the right to health in a pandemic can be met without blocking life-saving rescue.

Recent and unfolding events in the Mediterranean Sea raise serious concerns that European Union (EU) countries will use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to evade their responsibilities under international law to respond to boats in distress at sea, enact or coordinate rescue operations within their search and rescue areas, and ensure timely disembarkation in a safe port.

The Italian government in particular issued a formal decree on April 7, 2020 declaring its ports “unsafe” for disembarkation of people rescue at sea “for the duration of the national public health emergency.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us all of the value of life, and how much we are collectively willing to do to protect the most vulnerable among us,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now is the time to show that same resolve to save lives at sea and bring people to safety in Europe, where authorities can and should take reasonable, fair measures to protect the lives of the people rescued along with general public health.”

Italy’s move comes as the Alan Kurdi, a rescue ship operated by the German nongovernmental organization Sea-Eye, is in Italian waters with 150 people on board following two rescues in international waters off the Libyan coast on April 6. Italy should scrap the decree and immediately assign the Alan Kurdi a safe port, Human Rights Watch said.

Sea-Eye is the only rescue organization currently operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Two other principal rescue groups, Sea Watch and SOS MEDITERRANEE, in partnership with Médécins sans Frontières, have not returned to international waters after being quarantined for 14 days after their last missions at the end of February.

On April 6, the German Interior Ministry informed all German rescue organizations that Italy and Malta had indicated to the German government that they would not allow any disembarkation and called on the groups to halt rescue operations.

Under international law, public health measures must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. It may be reasonable to subject those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine. But the pandemic cannot justify blanket bans on disembarkation, which risk the rights to health of those on board. The bans also infringe on international duties to provide access to asylum and not to return anyone to a place where they face a risk of torture or other prohibited ill-treatment.

EU countries should put in place systems to ensure that these fundamental obligations coexist alongside public health measures, Human Rights Watch said. People arriving by sea, whether quarantined or not, should be placed in facilities that can guarantee social distancing, appropriate health monitoring, and access to care. Because of the high risk of transmission of the virus in detention facilities, the authorities should use alternatives to detention as much as possible.

Two boats traveling under their own power and carrying a total of about 124 people reached Lampedusa, the Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, on the night between April 7 and 8. The nongovernmental emergency hotline, Alarm Phone, said that Malta failed to respond to repeated alerts about one of the boats as it traversed the vast Maltese search-and-rescue area. Authorities are arranging transfers to Sicily because the Lampedusa hotspot is being used to quarantine another group that arrived in recent days.

On March 20, a Greek Cypriot patrol boat refused entry into port of an overcrowded boat carrying over 175 Syrians, citing a ban on entry into the country due to the new coronavirus. Many of those on the boat wanted to join families on the island.

An Al Jazeera journalist who spoke with some of the people on the boat reported that a Syrian woman from Aleppo said that, “The police said you cannot enter because of the coronavirus, we said … if you are scared about coronavirus you can put us in a camp alone or quarantine. But they refused…” The boat overturned off the coast of Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus. Everyone was rescued and is now in the northern part of the island.

“Pandemics don’t eliminate the reasons why people risk their lives at sea, and we should not allow this pandemic to eliminate our values,” Sunderland said. “The world is mounting an unprecedented response to the life-threatening COVID-19 pandemic. How can we turn our backs at the same time on people who are facing life-threatening risks at sea?”

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