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article imageCharities to resume migrant rescues in Mediterranean

By Romain FONSEGRIVES (AFP)     Aug 6, 2020 in World

Humanitarian organisations will resume migrant rescues this month in the Mediterranean Sea, where none have operated since the Ocean Viking vessel docked in Italy in early July, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Sea-Watch said Thursday.

Before the Ocean Viking's last mission, rescue operations in the Mediterranean had been suspended for months due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Announcing they will join forces, the French and German groups said they will deploy rescuers on a new ship, dubbed the Sea-Watch 4, currently docked in Spain.

Sea-Watch will provide the crew, and MSF the medical team.

"We hope to be able to depart Spain around the 10th to mid-August," MSF humanitarian affairs adviser Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui told AFP.

The mission was "essential," she said, as "currently, there is no NGO ship at sea" even as migrants escaping poverty and conflict continue attempts to cross the hazardous waters.

More than 100,000 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean last year from north Africa with more than 1,200 dying in the attempt, according to the International Organization for Migration.

- 'Leaving people to drown' -

After several weeks at sea, the Ocean Viking, chartered by charity group SOS Mediterranee, docked in Sicily on July 7 with 180 migrants on board.

It was then detained and immobilised over what Italy's coastguard said were "technical and operational irregularities" in a move NGOs said amounted to harassment.

The Ocean Viking had resumed rescue operations on June 22 after a three-month halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, MSF and SOS Mediterranee abandoned a four-year collaboration that had rescued thousands of migrants due to a disagreement over how to proceed amid the coronavirus.

The MSF's new partner, Sea-Watch, made headlines last year when Italy arrested Carola Rackete, the German captain of the Sea-Watch 3, for forcibly docking on the island of Lampedusa with dozens of migrants on board despite being refused permission.

The Sea-Watch 4, the groups said, was bought with backing from United 4 Rescue, a humanitarian group funded by the German Protestant Church.

"It is the categorical response of civil society to the racist policies of the EU, which prefers leaving people to drown rather than reach European shores," Philipp Hahn, chief of mission for Sea-Watch 4, said in a statement.

"Despite all their efforts to prevent us, we will not stop our rescue operations."

EU governments have cut back on migrant search-and-rescue operations, leaving NGOs to fill the void.

In May, UN agencies in a statement sought to "remind States of their obligations under international law to immediately assist people in distress... States must take every effort to promptly rescue people in distress, as a delay of even a few minutes could make the difference between life and death."

European countries have also frequently argued about how to share the burden of accommodating arriving migrants.

According to the UN Commissioner for Refugees, attempts to flee Libya across the Mediterranean have increased by 91 percent from January to July, compared to the same period last year, with more than 14,000 people taking their chances at sea.

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