By Akanimo Sampson
More than 400 rescued migrants and refugees are currently on board three vessels in the Central Mediterranean.
A group of some 27 migrants and refugees, including a pregnant woman and children, who departed from Libya, have been on board the commercial vessel Maersk Etienne for an unacceptable three-week period since their rescue on August 5.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, are calling for their immediate disembarkation, saying a solution must be found, and the vessel provided with a safe port for disembarkation.
A commercial tanker cannot be considered a suitable place to keep people in need of humanitarian assistance or those who may need international protection. Appropriate COVID-19 prevention measures can be implemented once they reach dry land.
More than 200 other rescued refugees and migrants are in urgent need of transfer and disembarkation from the NGO search and rescue vessel Louise Michel, which is currently far beyond its safe carrying capacity, after having intervened in a rescue early this morning.
According to the two UN agencies, any delays could jeopardize the safety of all people onboard, including its crew members.
A further 200 rescued people on the Sea Watch 4 NGO vessel should also be promptly provided with a safe port.
The humanitarian imperative of saving lives should not be penalized or stigmatised, especially in the absence of dedicated state-led efforts.
The lack of agreement on a regional disembarkation mechanism, long called for by IOM and UNHCR, is not an excuse to deny vulnerable people a port of safety and the assistance they need, as required under international law.
Stalled discussions around such a proposal should urgently be revived, especially amid repeated stand-offs delaying disembarkation. Clarity and predictability are in the immediate and long-term interest of all.
It is crucial that other EU member states provide more support to countries at the forefront of receiving sea arrivals in the Mediterranean.
Meaningful solidarity should be expressed through the pledging and implementation of relocation places as well as support for accelerated processing, in line with international standards, to identify persons in need of international protection and those in need of other forms of protection like unaccompanied children and victims of trafficking.
It is also important to enable swift returns for those who wish to go back to their countries of origin and for those who are found not in need of international or other forms of protection.
IOM and UNHCR are deeply concerned about the continued absence of dedicated EU-led search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean.
With relatively fewer NGO vessels compared to previous years, the gap is being increasingly filled by commercial vessels.
It is vital that they are permitted to disembark rescued passengers promptly, as without such timely processes, shipmasters of commercial vessels may be deterred from attending to distress calls for fear of being stranded at sea for weeks on end.