Rescue ship braves COVID-19 as migrants continue to cross Mediterranean


Asylum seekers continue to attempt the desperate journey to reach Europe despite coronavirus fears.

Alan Kurdi, a migrant rescue boat named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in 2015, is currently the only NGO rescue boat operating in the central Mediterranean. The coronavirus outbreak has forced many charities to concentrate their aid efforts in European countries affected.

“This pandemic will be over at some point. But migration will not, and asylum seekers will continue to risk their lives,” says Jan Ribbeck, mission manager of Sea Eye, currently the lone NGO with a rescue boat operating in the Mediterranean.

The Alan Kurdi, operated by the German NGO Sea-Eye, is heading back out into the central Mediterranean after a two month break.

The vessel left the Spanish port of Castellón de la Plana on Tuesday and is expected to reach waters off the coast of Libya this weekend.

“It wasn’t easy to put together a crew in this current crisis due to the spread of COVID-19,” says Ribbeck. “But we are taking extra security precautions and have established an outbreak management plan.

According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, almost 800 people departed from Libya in March. A total of 43 disembarked in Italy, in the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, while about 155 have landed in Malta. The rest were captured at sea by the Libyan coast guard and have been deported back to Libya.

“The virus has landed in Europe and the spotlight on some phenomena seems to have gone out,” says Matteo Villa, a research fellow from the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a migration thinktank.

“But the migrants never disappeared: thousands are stuck on the Greek islands, others on the border between Greece and Turkey. From countries like Tunisia and Algeria, people have postponed the trip for fear of coronavirus. But in Libya, the detention centres are scarier than the virus.”

There have been few confirmed cases of coronavirus in Libya so far. But what will happen if the virus spreads among migrants?

“Testing for COVID-19 is currently centralised and limited,” says Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean.

“Theoretically refugees and migrants in urban areas can access it, but we are not aware of any being actually tested. Those currently living in detention centres are already confronting the risk of TB and would be very vulnerable to coronavirus.”

The UNHCR announced last week that it would suspend some activities in Libya and stop making visits to detention centres until staff are given personal protective equipment. Phone counselling and outreach to refugee community leaders will increase, said the agency.

With the international community distracted by the coronavirus outbreak, fighting in Libya has intensified. Libyan armed factions have defied the UN’s call for a “global ceasefire” and last week fighting escalated across the country. (Source: The Guardian)