Quarantine ships: how migrants and asylum-seekers are detained in the name of the health emergency

Updated: Jun 16

Following the decree on the 7th of April 2020, through which the Italian government declared Italy’s ports unsafe due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the 12th of April saw a new controversial decree issued. This new decree established the option for migrants and asylum seekers rescued at sea to isolate for 14 days on private ships rented by the government. Although this decision may appear necessary given the emergency context derived from the pandemic, various elements make the use of these so-called “quarantine ships” contestable.


In the months following the decree, numerous ships were rented by the government and were active in different periods. It is hard to estimate the precise number of people detained on the quarantine ships since April, but last December this number was around 10.000 people. Generally, there is a lack of clear information about the treatment and assistance people receive on board, the availability of legal support, as well as information about the age, nationality, and gender of the people detained. However, over the past few months, multiple harsh testimonies around the conditions inside the quarantine ships resulted in questions around the use of these vessels to isolate migrants and asylum seekers.


The first case was that of Bilel Ben Masoud, a 22-year-old Tunisian national who died in May having jumped off the Moby Zazà quarantine ship in an attempt to swim to the shore. A few months later, on the 15th of September, another tragic story came out of the GNV Azzurra quarantine ship. This time, a 17-year-old Somali boy died in hospital in Sicily after being brought there urgently from the quarantine ship. The cause of death was tubercular meningitis. It seems that his health conditions were already severe before being detained on the ship, where clearly, he did not receive adequate treatments. Finally, less than a month later, in October 2020, another minor died after being urgently evacuated from the quarantine ship Allegra. His name was Abou Diakite, he was 15 years old and came from Ivory Coast. The causes of his death are still unclear, but he had signs of torture on his body, he looked ill, dehydrated, and malnourished according to testimonies.


Besides these extreme cases of deaths, there are multiple other cases of migrants harming themselves or attempting suicide while being detained on the quarantine ships. For instance, at the beginning of October, approximately 16 people attempted to jump off the ships and some of them managed to. At the end of October, nine migrants swallowed razor blades and pieces of glass while on board the Rhapsody quarantine ship. These awful stories force us to question the validity and adequacy of this system of floating detention targeted against migrants and asylum-seekers.



Experts and civil society have criticised the use of quarantine ships on many levels. Firstly, there are concerns regarding the very purpose of these ships to prevent the diffusion of the Covid-19 virus. Indeed, both infected and non-infected individuals are detained on the ships, although in separate areas. Nonetheless, some argue that it is not possible to follow norms like social distancing or effective separation between positive and negative individuals on a ship.


Secondly, critiques have been raised regarding the costs of these quarantine ships. Even if it is impossible to calculate an overall budget for this operation, many estimate that its costs are considerably higher than the option of isolating people on land.


Finally, and most importantly, there are concerns regarding the respect of the human rights of the individuals detained. Quarantine ships are a discriminatory measure as they only target foreign nationals who are undertaking a migratory movement. Such discriminatory methods were further emphasised by the practice of transferring migrants and asylum seekers who were already housed in refugee centres in Italy, to the quarantine ships after they had tested positive for Covid-19. Individuals detained on quarantine ships are deprived of their freedom of movement and suffer from harsh and inadequate conditions. It is important to remind ourselves that most of these individuals have suffered traumatic experiences in their journeys to Europe, especially in Libya, and therefore need medical and psychological assistance. Importantly, it is their right to ask for asylum or international protection once they have arrived in Italy. However, it seems that this is not possible on the quarantine ships and that in some cases, especially with Tunisian nationals, people are handed out an expulsion order before they even have the possibility to ask for protection.


All these observations and examples must motivate us to critically question this system of floating detention. Isolating people to prevent the spread of the virus is a necessary measure, but the way it is carried out must be humane and in respect of the fundamental rights to freedom and asylum.


About the author:

Eva is an Italian student, currently undertaking a Master’s in Global Refugee Studies at the University of Aalborg. Previously, Eva interned with Sos Mediterranee, one of the Search and Rescue NGOs operating in the Central Mediterranean. Through her studies and personal experience, she became very interested and critical of the current policies which have been adopted to ‘manage’ migration, especially in the Southern border and the Mediterranean.


FOOTNOTES:

[1] ASGI (Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione), June 2020: Diritti in rotta. Le “navi quarantena” tra rischi e criticità - Asgi

[2] Some of these ships are: Rubattino, Moby Zazà, Snav Adriatico, Allegra, GNV Azzurra, Aurelia, Rhapsody, Suprema.

[3] “Criticità del sistema navi-quarantena per persone migranti: analisi e richieste”; Report produced and co-signed by numerous civil society organizations and experts. Available at: https://www.meltingpot.org/IMG/pdf/criticita_del_sistema_navi-quarantena_per_persone_migranti-_analisi_e_richieste.pdf

[4] MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), January 2021: https://www.medicisenzafrontiere.it/news-e-storie/news/stop-navi-quarantena/

[5] The Guardian, October 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/07/death-of-teenage-boy-on-italian-quarantine-ship-being-investigated

[6] Vita, October 2020: Quei migranti invisibili sulle navi quarantena (07/10/2020) - Vita.it

[7] “Criticità del sistema navi-quarantena per persone migranti: analisi e richieste”; Report produced and co-signed by numerous civil society organizations and experts. Available at: https://www.meltingpot.org/IMG/pdf/criticita_del_sistema_navi-quarantena_per_persone_migranti-_analisi_e_richieste.pdf

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. According to this study, the costs would be four times higher (p. 12)

[10] Ibid.

[11] The New Humanitarian, November 2020: The New Humanitarian | COVID-19 quarantine ferries prove dangerous for migrants in Italy

[12] “Criticità del sistema navi-quarantena per persone migranti: analisi e richieste”; Report produced and co-signed by numerous civil society organizations and experts. Available at: https://www.meltingpot.org/IMG/pdf/criticita_del_sistema_navi-quarantena_per_persone_migranti-_analisi_e_richieste.pdf