Among the actions taken by the Italian government to manage the arrival of migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic were the so-called ‘quarantine ships’ (former passenger ferries). The first experiment took place on the Rubattino where, between 17 April and 5 May 2020, 183 people were hosted. Following this period, the Moby Zazà was also used to host up to 250 people.

The Interministerial Decree no. 150 of 7 April 2020 regulates the procedure to be followed after disembarkation and establishes that, during the period of the COVID-19 health emergency, Italian ports cannot be classified as a ‘place of safety’ for migrant arrivals. The Civil Liberties and Immigration Department of the Italian Ministry of Interior, together with the Italian Red Cross, were tasked with managing the procedures related to the fiduciary quarantine and isolation of migrants arriving by sea.

In this way, ships can be used for the medical surveillance period with regard to individuals rescued at sea who cannot be given a ‘place of safety’. This statement should refer to migrants rescued outside the SAR (‘Search and Rescue’) zone by foreign-flagged ships for which Italian ports may not be considered safe places. Migrants who arrive autonomously should instead spend their quarantine period in reception centres located on land rather than on ships: this last scenario should only occur if it is not possible to identify and organise such facilities.

This is a procedure that discriminates against migrants based on the way they arrive to Italy. The living conditions inside these floating structures are so concerning that the National Guarantor for prisoners’ rights describes the situation inside the Moby Zazà as follows:

the […] playful image [of cartoon characters] painted on the boat, contrasts dramatically with the reality of those who, presumably escaped from war and imprisonment, are waiting for their quarantine with a lack of information and support against desperation.

An Italian Red Cross volunteer who worked on the Rubattina told us how difficult life is on quarantine ships for the ‘guests’. The measures of social distancing and the obligation to wear PPE (masks, visor and gloves) on board make it difficult to establish contact with people who often have faced long days at sea in the hope of being rescued. The narrow spaces inside the ships (sleeping berths and the few metres available) produce a sense of distress, especially for the youngest people.

However, in the last month, some particularly serious practices implemented by the prefectures in collaboration with the Italian Red Cross have been reported. These practices involve the transfer to ‘quarantine ships’ of migrants with humanitarian protection status or asylum seekers legally residing in Italy exclusively based on the precondition that they have tested positive for COVID-19.

This is happening without providing any information and/or communication to the migrants involved  or any assessment of specific individual conditions (e.g., presence of family ties, vulnerability). Clearly, these practices represent a violation of the non-discrimination principle, since non-nationals are treated differently from Italian citizens with regard to a fundamental health right. The regulations in force allow people to be prohibited from leaving their homes by order of the health authority, but not to be isolated in places that are not appropriate for quarantine.

According to the European Commission, ‘with regard to reception conditions, Member States may exercise the possibility provided by Directive 2013/33/EU to establish, in justified cases and for a reasonable period of time, arrangements for reception conditions different from those normally required. These arrangements have to ensure, in any case, that essential needs, including health care, are provided. Quarantine or isolation measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are not covered by the EU asylum legislation. Such measures may also be imposed on asylum seekers in accordance with national legislation, if necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory’. The  situation with quarantine ships in Italy would appear to violate these guidelines as well as the the fundamental rights of migrants who have already suffered so much.

Blog post by Donatella Loprieno and Claudio Di Maio

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You may also be interested in watching Claudio Di Maio’s talk on ‘Migrants and European Social Policy’, hosted by the Permanent Seminar of International Studies (SSIP). Watch the talk in Italian below: