At the peak of Europe’s Covid-19 crisis, the SOS Mediterranee boat crowded with some 180 migrants plucked from the sea in distress, moved from port to port across Italy and Malta as it was refused permission to disembark. Unlike the voyages of expensive cruise ships, caught offshore in the crosshairs of the Covid-19 crisis, no one noticed.
20 March 2020. European borders had shut. Ports came to a standstill as they overflowed with boats unexpectedly docked amid travel restrictions to ward off a microscopic virus.
The boats with the migrants, however, continued to come in even greater numbers than before.
And those that hadn’t already capsized on their dangerous journey for a better future had nowhere to anchor themselves.
22 June, Marseille. One boat made it out to sea to search for stranded migrants.
It was the Ocean Viking, a rescue ship led by European humanitarian agency SOS Mediterranee, whose motto is to ensure every person in distress at sea is rescued and treated with dignity.
In only three days, the Ocean Viking saved a stunning 118 people close to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Smack between Tunisia and Libya to the southwest and Sicily on the northeast, it is a key entry point into Europe for North African migrants.
26 June. The Ocean Viking contacted the maritime rescue coordination centres of Rome and Malta to let the survivors off the boat.
According to international maritime law, which Italy and Malta have ratified, anyone rescued at sea must be taken to a safe port.
This time, however, no response was received from anyone. Silence.
30 June. The Ocean Viking had saved an additional 63 migrants on top of the 118 found only four days earlier. Some had been trapped on a wooden boat drifting south of Lampedusa. Others spent up to five days at sea. All were very dehydrated.
Those on board were from Libya, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Nigeria, among other countries. Of the survivors, 25 were minors and two were women. One was pregnant.
"The boat is in Sicily and the migrants still haven't disembarked”, said Caroline Abu Sada, the director of SOS Mediterranee. “It's still unclear whether or not there will be a quarantine for the boat and crew."
For eleven days, the Ocean Viking struggled to disembark.
It made seven requests to Italian maritime authorities, but there was no answer - despite international maritime law to which Italy had agreed to long-ago that forbids states to leave stranded passengers in distress at sea.
6 survivors tried to commit suicide as they broke down mentally while aboard the boat.
The boat’s employees, many of whom were threatened, are also traumatized, said Abu Sada. We don’t know whether, and how many, will stay with us, she added.
Every day, the Ocean Viking needs € 14, 000 to stay afloat.
Eleven days of silence.
Or € 154,000 that could have been used to save more lives.
Read more about the ‘black spring’ of 2020, in an exclusive Heidi News Exploration - the diary of comics journalist Hippolyte, as he recounts the tragic tale of the people that were left behind aboard the Ocean Viking.