The forgotten people of Sea Watch 3

Immediately after the rescue at the end of June, the German Interior Ministry promised its Italian colleagues to take in up to 14 of the refugees. But now five months later the people, among them a pregnant woman, live in inhumane conditions in a camp in southern Italy. Investigate Europe’s journalists were able to talk to several of the people affected.

Lucas Ebai, a young Cameroonian, is one of the refugees waiting to fly to Germany. Investigate Europe met him in a desolate refugee camp in southern Italy. He tells how he was pulled out of a small rubber boat by the crew of the “Sea Watch” in June. A two-week odyssey followed, before the captain of the ship, Carola Rackete, steered the “Sea Watch” into the port of Lampedusa under the eyes of the world and against the orders of the Italian government. She was subsequently arrested, causing an outcry in Germany. What would happen to the refugees? Ebai did not yet know. “I was simply glad to have solid ground under my feet again,” he says.

After only a few days – and probably thanks to the huge media coverage – the Federal Government informed the Italian authorities that Germany was ready to accept 14 people. Other countries also agreed – including Luxembourg, France, Finland and Portugal.  The distribution agreement with those five countries, was celebrated in Italy as a great success by Prime Minister Conte, with the support of the Foreign and the Interior. It seemed to the Italian press as if Matteo Salvini‘s “closed ports” policy was showing results.

But what are these agreements worth? The transfer is a voluntary procedure and none of the refugees has a legal right to be accepted by a country. In Malta on 23 September, France and Germany supported an agreement for the constant distribution of migrants. Germany, represented by the Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, said initially it was okay to relocate up to 25% of the people who arrived by ship in Germany. But they also made clear that this percentage only applies if the total numbers remain low.

While waiting for the unknown, the refugees of Sea Watch 3 were treated poorly. “We were closed in the hotspot of Messina for the first two weeks, we could not leave the camp, because we were different from the others”, says a girl from the Ivory Coast, who was later brought to France. IE reporter Maria Maggiore met her in Strasbourg. ”We were supposed to leave the country”. “Hotspot centres are designed to accommodate people for the few days necessary to complete the identification procedures. They are therefore totally inadequate to accommodate foreign citizens waiting for the end of the redistribution procedures for several weeks and often several months, “says Annapaola Ammirati of ASGI. “The Sea Watch 3 asylum seekers did not receive legal and social assistance. No doctor or psychologist takes care of people and drugs are denied. They had simply been told, that they would be administered when they arrive in the country of destination.”

Haidi Sadik, who is working for the NGO Sea Watch, tells the fate of the refugees of the Sea Watch 3: “French officials came to question 12 people at the beginning of July, then they only decided for nine, you don’t know why.” But this “French” group has been the luckiest of the refugees, they were able to leave for France in the beginning of August. Then, in mid-September, Portugal relocated five people, including a family with a six-month-old child. Luxembourg (three people) and Finland followed with six. Germany, after sending German officials to question each of the candidates, decided for 11. These are now the only left behind and have been waiting for their transport for more then five months with no idea of when, or even if, it will actually happen.

The government in Berlin confirms that Eiba and the ten other people are still in Italy. At the request of “Investigate Europe”, a spokesman for the Federal Ministry of the Interior said: “So far, Italy has not transferred any of these persons to Germany.” The Federal Government rejects any responsibility: “Transfers under the so-called Dublin Regulation are carried out by the requesting member state, in this case Italy. A corresponding transfer date is currently not available to the competent German authorities”. The Dublin Regulation, on the other hand, states: “The Member State which decides to examine an application for international protection shall assume the obligations associated with that responsibility.”

The inaction of the German government is an “untenable situation”, said Luise Amtsberg, the spokeswoman for the group of the Green party in the German parliament for refugee policy, “The redistribution from Italy must take place quickly, also with a view to the welfare of the people. The federal government is aware of the precarious situation of those seeking protection and should spare those affected every further day in this unworthy waiting state.”

At the beginning of November, five months after he had been rescued from the Mediterranean, Ebai and the ten other refugees were taken from Sicily to a camp on the Italian mainland near the town of Crotone. There they live, guarded by soldiers, in a separate area – a transfer zone for refugees to be distributed to another country. Here they are just a number, which ends with the letters “SW” for “Sea Watch”. The camp management excludes them from receiving social benefits due to those who are staying in Italy. This includes pocket money to buy the most necessary things. The 11 refugees, among them a Cameroon woman who is six months pregnant, have no access to specialist medical care. They still have to wear the summer clothes that the “Sea Watch” crew gave them. Ebai, who has been suffering from toothache for weeks, only received painkillers – which are no longer effective.

In the transfer area of the Crotone camp, Ebai and the 10 refugees are not any longer alone. Recently, 50 people arrived here who were rescued in September and October by the Norwegian ship “Ocean Viking”. They have also been told they will be relocated in Germany. The Italian side hopes for a quicker procedure in the future: with relocation being concluded in not more than four weeks, say official sources. But for now, the refugees are waiting – and nobody knows for how long.

This investigation has been published in Italy and Germany by our Mediapartners Il Fatto Quotidiano and Der Tagesspiegel.