The charity-operated Ocean Viking vessel set sail Friday from southern France to lead the search and rescue operation efforts in the central Mediterranean Sea for numbers of people that embark on the world’s deadliest migration route.
It’s predecessor, the Aquarius, operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee had been repeatedly denied entry to Italian ports. It was forced to dock in both Malta and Spain, and was accused of waste mismanagement and criminal activity which brought its rescue efforts to an end in December 2018.
The Ocean Viking, which is a more spacious and better-adapted ship, has become the largest vessel operating in the Mediterranean over the summer months at a time when the number of people embarking on the deadly route rises considerably due to the favorable weather conditions.
The Ocean Viking will now take on the huge challenge of searching for and rescuing people with no cooperation or assistance from the European Union.
“Civil society is taking on a role that should have corresponded to governments, but they do not want to undertake the task of helping all these people who risk their lives in Mediterranean waters,” Frederic Penard, director of operations for SOS Mediterranee, told Efe.
The Aquarius embarked on its final operation last summer when it disembarked in Valencia.
Since then the French charities have been searching for a substitute which they found in Norway. It costs 14,000 euros a day to operate the ship which relies exclusively on private donations.
The people that are rescued have been exposed to terrible humanitarian conditions for months, Sam Turner, head of the mission for MSF, added.
The Ocean Viking will face even larger challenges than its predecessor.
Since the Aquarius ceased operations, the far-right Italian government has stepped up its anti-immigration stance, blocking and disallowing any disembarkations at its ports and even sueing rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
Italy has also closed down a control center located in Rome that centralized information about boats that were adrift which was then shared with vessels, like the Aquarius, with the ability to assist in their search and rescue.
“They are exhausted, tired, scared, they don’t know where they are, it is chaos from a mental perspective. They arrive with horrible stories,” Marc Carbonell, a member of the SOS Mediterranee rescue team, said.
Although medical operations will not be possible onboard, the facilities will give doctors the possibility of stabilizing individuals who are ill and the front of the ship has a helipad in case emergency evacuations are required.
“For three years we have demanded that European governments find a system that allows people not to die in the central Mediterranean, Penard added. “It is not a problem of Italy or Malta, it is a problem of the whole of Europe.”