COVID-19 forced Europe to shut its borders but, since the start of the year, more than 13,000 migrants have attempted to cross the central Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration.
After a brief hiatus during the lockdown, NGO vessels like Ocean Viking restarted operations in June and have already rescued hundreds of migrants.
Now they are demanding EU countries open their ports to allow the ships to dock.
“We have 180 survivors on board. They were all on unseaworthy, completely overcrowded wooden boats,” Laurence Bondard from SOS Méditerranée onboard Ocean Viking, told Culture Clash.
“They spent nights and days at sea and now they’re all waiting to be allowed to disembark. This is absolutely intolerable and it’s absolutely illegal.”
The EU officially supports and trains the Libyan coastguard as part of Operation Irini, which aims to enforce an arms embargo on the country and tackle organised crime engaged in “migrant smuggling”.
However, the perilous situation in the country and reports of human rights abuses have led MEPs and NGOs to demand an end to the partnership.
The EU’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell has defended the wider EU operation, saying it is essential to stabilise Libya and to prevent a wave of migrants.
COVID-19 has made the situation even more complex.
In June, 28 migrants tested positive for the virus while being held on a quarantine ship in Porto Empedocle, Sicily.
“We just overcame the emergency of the outbreak and we were feeling free again. But now we are concerned once again,” one resident told Euronews.
The issue has become highly divisive across Europe, with Italian and Maltese politicians accusing the EU of leaving them to deal with the brunt of arrivals.
Italy’s former interior minister Matteo Salvini launched a fierce campaign against rescue ships while in office, leading to tense standoffs with rescue ships like the Aquarius.
His supports remain highly critical of the rescue operations.
“We do not want to become the refugee camp of Europe,” Manuel Imberti of the Lega Salvini Premier party told Culture Clash.
“At this time we can not accommodate all migrants both positive and negative [for COVID-19] since our finances don’t allow it,’ he added.
NGOs have vowed to continue operations despite opposition through the summer, as fairer weather vastly increases the number of departures.