The use of quarantine ships is one of the measures put in place by the Italian government to deal with the arrivals of foreign nationals in times of pandemic. Almost two months after the start of this experiment, it is possible to make a first assessment of the adequacy and criticism entailed in this measure.
The first experiment was carried out on board the ship Rubattino, run by the Tirrenia company, which hosted 183 people between the 17 April and the 5 May. On the 19 April, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transportations launched a procedure for the chartering of vessels for the assistance and “health surveillance” of migrants autonomously arriving on the Italian coasts or rescued in SAR operations. The Moby Zazà was then identified as a “quarantine ship” capable of accommodating up to 250 people. 160 migrants, whose Covid-19 test was finally negative, left the ship on the 30 May.
The issue of the controversial interministerial decree no. 150 of 7 April 2020 gave rise to the redefinition of post-disembarkation procedures. The decree establishes that, during the health emergency caused by the spread of Covid-19, Italian ports cannot be classified as safe places, place of safety, for the landing of migrants.
On 12 April, Decree no. 1287/2020 of the Head of the Civil Protection Department was published, entrusting the Department for Civil Liberties and Immigration of the Ministry of the Interior with the management of procedures related to the fiduciary isolation and quarantine of foreign citizens rescued or arrived independently by sea. On the basis of this decree, the Ministry of Interior, together with the Italian Red Cross, may use ships for the “health surveillance” period “with reference to persons rescued at sea and for whom it is not possible to indicate the “Place of Safety”. This indication, apparently sibylline, refers to the persons referred to in the decree of 7 April, i.e. persons rescued outside the Italian SAR by ships flying a foreign flag for which Italian ports cannot be considered “safe places”. Migrants arriving autonomously, i.e. not as a result of SAR operations, should in the first instance carry out the quarantine period in reception facilities on the territory and not on ships, unless it is for some reason impossible to identify such facilities, as in fact happened for many people disembarked in Italy in May and June.
A number of problems arise from use of the so-called quarantine ships. First of all, it is a device for the deprivation of personal freedom which differs clearly from the measures to which foreign citizens who have come to Italy by other means have been subjected during the lockdown. The Interministerial Decree of 17 March provided that persons arriving from abroad, in the absence of symptoms, must report their return to the public sanitary office, prevention department, and undergo isolation and health surveillance for a period of 14 days. It is therefore a formula with markedly discriminatory characteristics.
With regard to the conditions in which people are inside the ship, the words of the National Ombudsman for the rights of prisoners effectively paint the situation of the Moby Zaza: “the […] playful image painted on the hull, corresponds dramatically to the reality of those who, presumably escaped from wars or imprisonments, await the flow of the, though dutiful, quarantine with a lack of certain information and support against despair”.
The use of ships for the quarantine also has important symbolic value both for migrants subjected to the measure and in the political debate linked to the issue of disembarkation and the sharing of responsibility among the European member states in the field of migration.
Finally, no news has been spread about the procedures that are implemented on the ships, about the support that is or is not provided to foreign citizens, about the possible police investigations carried out on board and about institutional and non institutional actors operating on board.
For this reason, a request for access to the files was sent to the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Health to find out which procedures are implemented on board, how they are carried out and who is involved.
From the first answers received from the Civil Liberty and Immigration Department, as implementing entity, it is clear only the role of the Italian Red Cross responsible for health care measures, cultural linguistic mediation, social assistance, psychological support and identification of vulnerabilities.
Finally, particular attention deserves the future of this praxis: migration management policies in recent years teach us that the major innovations have been introduced to manage emergencies. The hotspots themselves were set up in 2015 as an extraordinary measure to deal with a situation where the number of people arriving in Italy and Greece was extremely high. However, this system, having ended “the emergency”, continued to operate and became fully integrated into the ordinary management system of migration, revolutionizing it and introducing serious violations of the rights of foreign citizens.
It is therefore necessary to ensure that quarantine ships do not become the forerunner of “hotspot ships”, “hotspot platforms” or other systems aimed at preventing foreign citizens rescued at sea from disembarking in Italy. The conditions of the ships, their structural isolation, the difficult monitoring and the impossibility of the contacts with civil society, make this formula absolutely inadequate for carrying out the delicate operations of reception, information, definition of the legal status of foreign citizens.