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Stranded migrant vessel remains stuck in international waters

Golfo Azzurro denied entry to Italian waters after rerouting from near Malta

The Golfo Azzurro rerouted north towards Sicily earlier today... Image: Vessel Finder

The Golfo Azzurro rerouted north towards Sicily earlier today... Image: Vessel Finder

Updated 6.20pm

A migrant rescue vessel denied entry into both Italian and Maltese territory remains stranded in international waters after rerouting towards Sicily earlier today. 

The Golfo Azzurro was intercepted by an Italian coast guard ship as it approached the Sicilian port town of Pozzallo, having spent more than 24 hours circling just outside Malta's territorial waters.

Ship tracking services showed the vessel heading west of Sicily at around 5.35pm, only for it turn and face east around 40 minutes later, with an Italian coast guard vessel keeping watch close by.

The Golfo Azzurro, which is carrying three migrants aboard, was stranded in international waters following a diplomatic tug-of-war between Italian and Maltese authorities.

The ship's captain originally planned to disembark in Lampedusa but diverted towards Malta after Italian authorities denied it entry into its ports, allegedly saying Barcelona-based NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which is running the rescue operation, had failed to comply with a recently-introduced code of conduct.

...but is now heading west, with an Italian coast guard vessel close behind. Image: Vessel Finder...but is now heading west, with an Italian coast guard vessel close behind. Image: Vessel Finder

Maltese authorities also declined to green light the ship's entry, insisting that international maritime law clearly stated that the ship had to be granted entry to the nearest port of call - in this case Lampedusa.

Deputy prime minister Chris Fearne reiterated this line earlier today, telling Times of Malta the government was right to deny the ship entry and that international law was clear on the matter.

Code of conduct

According to Italian news agency ANSA, Open Arms signed up to the controversial code of conduct earlier today. It is not known whether the NGO’s decision to comply with the code is related to the Golfo Azzurro’s northbound rerouting.

Among other things, the code of conduct includes a demand that ships carry an armed policeman aboard. It also forbids ships from transferring people to other boats, with the measure apparently intended as a means of shutting down smaller rescue operations, which use small vessels to rescue people distressed at sea before transferring them to larger vessels.

NGOs say the code would be a violation of international maritime law, and the code has also drawn criticism from international law experts.

"The code of conduct isn't meant to save more lives but to limit the number of people rescued by the NGOs," international law professor Fulvio Vassallo told Reuters last week. "It's being sold to the public as something that will lower departures from Libya, which it will not do. Unfortunately, it could increase the number of victims."

Four rescue NGOs have now signed up to the code – Proactiva Open Arms, Save the Children, Moas and Sea. SOS Mediterranee, Medicines Sans Frontiers, Sea-Watch and Jugend Retter have not.

Italian authorities seized a vessel operated by Jugend Retter last week, accusing the NGO of having made contact with people smugglers off the Libyan coast.

Italy's shift towards a more hardline stance comes as the country prepares for elections next spring and with public sentiment towards migrant arrivals increasingly sour. 

An estimated 600,000 migrants have reached it by sea from North Africa since 2014, and immigration has become a key electoral issue. Populist movement Cinque Stelle, which leads in the polls, has called for an end to NGO migrant rescues, calling them a "sea-taxi service". 

Warning shots

Proactiva Open Arms said on Twitter that a second boat it operates received a threatening radio call from the Libyan coastguard on Monday morning while patrolling international waters some 13 miles from the Libyan coast between Tripoli and Zuwara.

A spokesperson for the NGO told Reuters that the Libyan coastguard had fired shots into the air in the direction of the boat. The NGO also published a video of the alleged incident on Twitter. 

Libya's coastguard appeared to confirm this, saying one of its patrol vessels had fired two shots into the air after finding the Spanish boat exactly 12 miles from the Libyan coast, an area he said was for Libya to patrol.

"We demanded they leave immediately and head north but they did not obey the instructions," coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem told Reuters. 

The European Union is providing funding and training for the Libyan coastguard. 

 

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