Migrant rescue ships have returned to the Mediterranean for the first time in two months as coronavirus movement restrictions begin to ease.
Last Saturday 67 people were brought to safety in Pozallo, Sicily, by the rescue ship Mare Iono — the first such operation since April.
But strict Italian rules to curb the spread of the virus mean all new arrivals must self-isolate for two weeks, while the rescue organisations themselves have new procedures to follow.
“We had to change our protocols when it comes to distributing food and clothes,” said Alessandra Sciurba from the Mediterranea Saving Humans group.
“We basically stuck to the rules you would follow inside a hospital: we had gloves, visors, protective clothing.
“Of course, it was not easy when you have 67 people on board a ship which is not that big, especially when you have to respect social distancing between the team and the rescued people.”
The number of departures from Libya so far this year is higher than the same period last year, although it is still too early to see how COVID-19 has affected the figures.
However, it is clear that the absence of rescue ships in the Mediterranean during the lockdown period did not discourage migrants from attempting the crossing.
“NGO rescue ships could not operate at sea, because ports were not available, they were left without a place to disembark the migrants but, despite that, departures figures remained high,” said Laurence Hart, director of the Coordination Office for the Mediterranean, based in Malta.
“That proves that rescue activity is not a pull-factor for those migrants.”
Instead, the migrants’ economic situation and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Libya appear to be the main factors in driving them across the sea.
“When we told them you have to self–isolate for 14 days they didn’t react,” Sciurba said. “Their main goal remains escaping from what they call the ‘Libyan hell’.”