Bari: The year has gotten off to a slow start for a rescue ship that typically plies the Mediterranean Sea looking for migrants and refugees in distress. The Ocean Viking has been impounded, its crew accused of having deviated from a designated course, as Italy targets charity groups that operate such vessels.
It was the second time in as many months that Italian authorities detained the 69-meter (225-foot) ship, operated by the European group SOS Mediterranee, while enforcing a year-old Italian government decree that regulates maritime rescue charities.
The hard-right-led government of Premier Giorgia Meloni approved the decree as part of efforts to stem the flow of migrants and would-be asylum-seekers trying to reach Europe. Italian maritime authorities now routinely assign privately operated rescue ships to ports in central and northern Italy, hundreds of miles and several days of navigation away from where they find boats in trouble.
Authorities also forbid the aid groups’ vessels from carrying out multiple rescue operations without authorization.
The government says the measures are intended to reduce migration pressure on southern Italy and to regulate sea missions that it maintains only encourage more migrants to attempt risky crossings from North Africa.
To date, 13 or 14 charity-run rescue ships have been impounded for various violations. The aid groups deny their activities provide an incentive and argue that Italy’s procedures take their ships out of operation for days while leaving vulnerable migrants to the whims of the Mediterranean.
The SOS Mediterranee is accused of having deviated from its assigned route to a port in Bari, a city on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where the crew was directed after having rescued 244 people at sea. The Ocean Viking went off course on Dec. 27 to respond to a civilian aircraft’s report of a boat in distress some 15 nautical miles away.
It resumed its original course to Bari after corrected coordinates showed the boat was too far away and Italian authorities had dismissed Ocean Viking from the mission.
“We are accused of not having followed the orders of the Italian coast guard, and the only fault we have is that of having followed the law of the sea,” Alessandro Porro, a senior rescuer and president of SOS Mediterranee’s Italy operation.
After arriving as originally scheduled in Bari on Dec. 30, the crew received a 20-day detention order for the ship and a 3,300-euro ($3,600) fine. The detention order expires Friday, and SOS Mediterranee hopes to set out again as soon as possible, weather permitting.
“We know this is a tactic to try and stop our operation rather than something that is valid in some way,” Mary Finn, another Ocean Viking rescuer, said. “And I find it painful to feel that humanity’s not on our side or that the authorities aren’t on our side, because it’s so obvious when you do this work that what we’re doing is the right thing to be doing.”
Sara Kelany, the migration policy coordinator for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, agreed that saving lives is a priority. But she said the presence of charity-run ships in the Mediterranean must be limited and strictly regulated.
Kelany alleged that many of the groups that organize humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean also have a stated political objective of changing the European Union’s migration policies.
“In essence, they want to be political actors within the dynamics of immigration,” she said in an interview. “Immigration is a state’s national competence, and we cannot allow private organizations to influence our migration policies with their policies.”
More than 60% of the 260,000 people who reached Europe last year by crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa first arrived in Italy, according to U.N. and Italian statistics.
Meanwhile, more than 3,000 people drowned at sea while attempting the journey in 2023, according to the International Organization for Migration, which estimates that more than 28,800 people overall have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014.
It is unclear what, if any, effect the Italian government’s regulation of maritime rescue groups has had on the number of migrants who made it to Europe or were lost at sea. Charity ships rescue only around 8% of the asylum-seekers who reach Italy, down from a peak of 41% in 2017. Most either landed in their own boats or were brought ashore by the Italian coast guard.
After taking office in late 2022, Meloni’s government pledged to curb migrant arrivals. Instead, Italy saw them sharply increase, with more than 157,000 in 2023 compared to 105,000 the year before. On one day in September, more than 7,000 migrants arrived on the island of Lampedusa.
Meloni has promoted deals designed to keep people from charting out for Europe and also formulated a development plan for Africa aimed at giving citizens greater economic opportunities so they won’t be desperate to leave.
Details of the plan, named for Enrico Mattei, the former president of Italian oil company ENI, which has strategic interests in several North African countries, haven’t been released.
Beyond that, Meloni was on hand in Tunisia in June when the president of the EU’s executive commission president signed an accord with the Tunisian government pledging economic aid in exchange for help preventing departures.
More recently, Meloni reached a bilateral deal with Albania that calls for establishing two centers in the Balkan nation to process the fast-tracked asylum applications of migrants who were rescued by Italian navy, coast guard and border police vessels.
The Constitutional Court of Albania suspended the deal pending a review, but Prime Minister Edi Rama has said he expects it to go forward.