The morning light hits the survival blankets in which the survivors wrapped themselves up on February 14, making the deck of the Ocean-Viking, the humanitarian ship of the NGO SOS Méditerranée, sparkle. The radio crackles: “Any confirmation of the number of people on board? At the end of the line, in his red uniform, Mattia (who does not wish to give his last name), protection officer for the Red Cross, is busy listing the people rescued at sea. Armed with his smartphone, he notes their ages and nationalities then gives them a number allowing them to be counted. “We have 84 people, 8-4 people,” he announces over the radio. “8-4 people, well received,” Anita Zugarramurdi instantly replies from the other end of the ship.

Sitting at her desk, near the chart table and the radar, the search and rescue operations coordinator meticulously notes down the information while sipping her mate. A few hours earlier, around 4 a.m., she was woken up by the officer on watch: an alert email sent by Alarm Phone, the emergency telephone line for migrants at sea, reported a case of nearby distress. After consultation with the captain, the ship diverted its course towards the last known position of the boat, in international waters off Libya. Shortly before the first rays of the sun, the crew spotted the dangerously overcrowded dinghy.

Throughout the rescue operation, Anita Zugarramurdi kept the Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities informed. The survivors are mainly from West Africa. They have young, sometimes childlike faces: 58 of them are unaccompanied minors. Some show signs of hypothermia and dehydration, and have been taken care of by the medical team.

Twenty-one days of wandering

Once the situation has stabilized, Anita Zugarramurdi asks that she be assigned a safe place to disembark the survivors. “Before, the authorities kept us at sea for several days or weeks, until it became unbearable to have several hundred survivors on board,” recalls the Uruguayan sailor.

These prevarications came to a head in November 2022, when the far-right Italian government of Giorgia Meloni closed its ports to several humanitarian ships, including the Ocean-Viking. After twenty-one days wandering in the Mediterranean Sea – a record, we remember on board – the boat was finally welcomed “exceptionally” by France in the military port of Toulon, causing a diplomatic quarrel between the neighbors transalpine. The others were finally received in Catania (Sicily) after a long showdown.

Since then, Rome has revised its methods: the assignment of a “safe harbor” is now more diligent, but also more restrictive. Barely half an hour after sending its request, the Ocean-Viking receives a response from the Italian coordination and rescue center. In the living room of the boat, the teams that are not on call are waiting. When Anita Zugarramurdi tumbles into the room, the suspense is at its height. “Guess where they’re sending us this time?” “, she says in an ironic tone. “Genoa? “, “Trieste? “La Spezia?” “, try crew members. “It will be Ravenna,” the operations coordinator finally announces.

To reach this commercial port in the Emilia-Romagna region, where it has already docked a month earlier, the Ocean-Viking will have to undertake a long journey of more than 1,600 kilometers through the Mediterranean, Ionian and Adriatic seas. . Four days of navigation and as much for the return, during which the ship will be away from its operating area. The objective is to “decongest the ports of Calabria and Sicily” to which the NGOs were accustomed, explained in January the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Piantedosi, architect of this new strategy.

“The impact for us is of course an increase in costs,” says Anita Zugarramurdi. “According to our forecasts, our fuel budget is likely to double over the year, explains Carla Melki, the assistant director of operations, present on board a few days earlier. This represents an additional 1 million euros. »

Multiple rescues prohibited

Shortly after, the ship sets sail for Ravenna. A controversial decree-law now requires humanitarian ships to proceed “without delay” to their assigned port. Any offender is liable to fines of up to 50,000 euros and administrative detention of the building. Until then, pending a response from the authorities, the ships generally remained off Libya. If other cases of distress arose, they also brought assistance to them. These multiple rescues are now prohibited.

As the ship moves away from the search area, emotion gives way to frustration. The mines of the rescuers tense up. “That’s it, a rescue and we’re packing up,” breathes one of them, throwing off his still wet suit. “Before, we used to do several, sometimes six, seven, eight in a row. We went on,” explains Lucille Guenier, communications officer on board. “The new Italian strategy is the latest attempt by a European government to hinder assistance to people in distress,” replies Anita Zugarramurdi. For me, the objective of the new decree is clear: it is to keep the ships of the civilian fleet as far as possible from the Mediterranean. »

In January, while en route to La Spezia following an initial rescue, the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship Geo-Barents was informed of two more cases of distress and rescued them. He had escaped punishment, but a month later, when 48 people disembarked at the port of Ancona, the boat was sentenced to twenty days of administrative detention and a 10,000 euro fine for not having transmitted to the authorities. local information from the trip data recorder, as required by the new decree.

For the Ocean-Viking, no multiple rescues have yet presented themselves, but Anita Zugarramurdi is adamant: “If further cases of distress arise after a rescue, we will never leave the area. Above all government there is maritime law. »