Migrants aboard Ocean Viking await transfer off Sicily

Updated 07 Jul 2020

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At Porto Empedocle on Sicily’s western side, the migrants are awaiting transfer from the vessel chartered by charity group SOS Mediterranee to an Italian ferry where they will spend 14 days in quarantine. — Photo courtesy SOS Mediterranee Twitter
At Porto Empedocle on Sicily’s western side, the migrants are awaiting transfer from the vessel chartered by charity group SOS Mediterranee to an Italian ferry where they will spend 14 days in quarantine. — Photo courtesy SOS Mediterranee Twitter

ROME: Eleven days after making its first Mediterranean rescues since the coronavirus crisis erupted, the humanitarian aid boat Ocean Viking dropped anchor off the Italian island of Sicily on Monday, poised to disembark the 180 migrants on board.

At Porto Empedocle on Sicily’s western side, the migrants are awaiting transfer from the vessel chartered by charity group SOS Mediterranee to an Italian ferry where they will spend 14 days in quarantine.

SOS Mediterranee said it was seeking instructions from Italian maritime authorities as it waited about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the coast.

“For the moment, we haven’t received information on when and how the disembarkment will take place,” the group wrote on Twitter.

It said tensions were rising and the long wait was “amplifying risks on board”.

From the deck of the Ocean Viking, migrants who have waited for more than a week to disembark could make out both the Sicilian coast and the immense ferry, the Moby Zaza, according to a reporter on board.

It was unclear whether the migrants would be transferred directly to the Moby Zaza, or whether they would step down on Italian soil before being transferred.

For the past two weeks, more than 200 migrants rescued by another humanitarian aid boat, the Sea Watch, have been quarantined aboard the Moby Zaza.

Thirty of them who have tested positive for coronavirus will remain on the ferry, isolated in a special “red zone,” while another 169 disembarked on Monday for a transfer to Italy’s mainland, Italian newswire AGI reported.

The mayor of Porto Empedocle, Ida Carmina, told reporters that the migrants’ arrival was too much for the economically suffering community to support.

“Now that we’re coming back, starting tourism back up, this thing is an incredible blow for us,” Carmina said, who noted the town had reported no cases of coronavirus during Italy’s health crisis.

The pending transfer comes one day after Italy gave approval to unload the migrants, who were picked up in four separate rescues from the Mediterranean on June 25 and 30.

The news immediately prompted joy and relief from the migrants, who include Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Eritreans and Nigerians and people from several North African countries.

The group includes 25 minors and two women, one of whom is pregnant.

Tensions had been mounting over the past week on the crowded boat, culminating in fights between migrants frustrated by the long waiting period and their inability to call their families to let them know they were safe.

On Friday, SOS Mediterranee called a state of emergency after one migrant tried to hang himself and others threw themselves over board. The charity said it could no longer ensure the safety of migrants or crew.

The Ocean Viking set sail from Marseille on June 22 after the coronavirus crisis disrupted its rescue operations for about three months.

Among the migrants who savoured their first glances of Europe from the side of the Ocean Viking was Mohammad Irshad, a 22-year-old Pakistani, who said he was overjoyed that a safe port awaited them.

“It was very difficult in Libya and I can’t even explain the joy I’m feeling today, it’s just incredible,” Irshad said.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2020