NGOs lament ‘human cost’ of Italy’s push to curb refugee arrivals

Critics say policies pursued by Italy’s new government will lead to more deaths in the Mediterranean.

ocean viking mediterranean migrants rescue
In 2022, more than 2,000 migrants and refugees were feared drowned or missing, according to the IOM's Missing Migrants project. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

New legislation passed by the Italian government earlier this year to curb undocumented migration to Italy has been slammed by search-and-rescue organisations working on the Mediterranean who say the move will increase deaths in the region.

On January 2 this year, the Italian government passed a raft of legislation aiming to deliver on one of the conservative party’s key election promises on migration.

This legislation requires captains of rescue ships to request a port immediately after a rescue and head to it rather than continuing at sea and assisting with multiple distress calls. This also means that the vessels are unable to carry out rescue efforts for up to a week at times.

“Central Mediterranean is the deadliest sea migration route since 2014 due to a lack of maritime rescue assets in this precise area,” Lucille Guenier, communications officer at SOS Mediterranee, said.

“Sending lifesaving rescue NGOs away from area of operations will only increase the number of people drowning.”

Migrants and refugees rest onboard a rescue boat
European countries, many of which have opened their borders to Ukrainians, have been criticised for their double standards in dealing with migrants and refugees from elsewhere [File: Juan Medina/Reuters]

Juan Matias Gil, head of the search and rescue mission at Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), said the move has a knock-on effect on the work that search and rescue (SAR) missions can do.

“We have to leave behind many other boats [in distress], with a high probability of having an incident and drowning,” said Gil.

“Last year, we carried out 16 missions a week, and we rescued a total of 3,050 people. If we were leaving after the first rescue, we would have rescued 1,030 people. This is the human cost of a decree that is only trying to minimise the time that we have in the SAR area.”

Hefty fines

According to the legislation, if ship captains do not comply, they risk a fine of 50,000 euros ($54,000) – a significant amount for these charity-run NGOs – and having their vessels impounded.

The new rule effectively prohibits SAR organisations from carrying out multiple rescues on the same journey, meaning that ships have to sail past people in distress, in direct contravention of multiple international legal conventions and agreements, such as the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue and the UN Convention on Law of the Sea.

In the past few months, the Italian government has increasingly been assigning distant ports for disembarkation – on the western and northern coasts of Italy which do not have the same reception system in place for migrants and refugees as other ports.

“Italy had assigned us the port of Livorno and instructed us to sail directly to the port, although a distress case was still open,” said Maximilian James, a spokesperson at Sea-Eye.

“But because we carried out a rescue anyway, 45 people could be saved after they spent six days at sea. If we had gone directly to the port of Livorno, these people would very likely be dead now. It is our duty, as is the duty of every ship, to rescue people in distress at sea.”

For years, humanitarian and solidarity organisations in the Mediterranean have warned about the escalating crises in the region – state-led SAR missions were largely discontinued after 2014, and NGOs had to step in and fill the gap.

Since then, NGOs and humanitarian organisations have accused governments, as well as European Union bodies like Frontex, of collaborating with government forces, including the Libyan coastguard, to return people to the places they are fleeing from.

Many SAR vessel crew members and charities say this decree is just the latest in an attack on humanitarian organisations trying to save lives.

“Migrants are now attempting this journey several times, almost six, seven times,” said Gil. “Every time, they have to pay. The ones who are benefitting the most are the smugglers, and the ones who are suffering the most are migrants.”

Refugees in ‘most desperate of situations’

In October 2022, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party Brothers of Italy won on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, stating that they would take drastic measures to limit traffickers and mafia organisations that profit from migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

Charities and organisations that monitor the region say that increased efforts by EU member states such as Greece and Italy to criminalise and push back against their work led to more deaths. In 2022, more than 2,000 migrants and refugees were feared drowned or missing, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants project.

“We have seen firsthand that many of those who flee Libya have suffered violence, torture and rape,” Sasha Ockendon, the social media and public relations officer at SOS Humanity, said.

“We rescue many pregnant women and minors from unsafe boats. They are in the most desperate of situations, and see no option but to risk the journey.”

A refugee looks at the sunshine over Sicily island from a rescue boat
Italy’s new government has effectively prohibited search and rescue organisations from carrying out multiple rescues on the same journey [Juan Medina/Reuters]

Another element of this legislation is also the legal obligation for captains and crew members to collect information about everyone on board.

This contravenes UN guidance and other legislation about the right to claim asylum – which is that asylum requests should be dealt with after disembarkation at a place of safety, and that immediate needs must be dealt with first.

“The Italian government decree comes at a time when the EU stopped carrying out rescues in the Mediterranean. There is no European rescue mission, only European aerial surveillance, which is complicit in illegal pushbacks by passing information to its Libyan allies,” said Oliver Kulikowski, a spokesperson at Sea-Watch.

“The renewed attempt to keep civilian rescue organisations out of the Mediterranean for as long as possible will not only lead to more deaths but is also designed to keep some of the last witnesses from documenting Europe’s deadly policies and committed human rights violations.”

Criminalisation of rescue efforts

In addition to such decrees, humanitarian organisations and NGOs have faced excessive criminalisation of their efforts from countries like Greece and Italy that are increasingly taking a harder line on NGOs working to save lives at sea.

Earlier this month, Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder were among two dozen humanitarian activists who went on trial in Greece, in a move that was widely condemned by international rights organisations and humanitarian groups alike as “chilling” and “farcical”.

The crew of the Iuventa, a ship that carried out SAR missions, were charged with “facilitating illegal migration” in 2017 and could face up to 20 years in prison.

Since mid-2018, Sea-Watch’s ships have been blocked 10 times. One of their vessels is still held in Italy.

“Since 2017, Italy and other EU states have attempted to hinder non-governmental search and rescue activities by defamation, administrative harassment, and criminalisation of NGOs and activists,” said Ockendon.

“We are accustomed to these attempts by now – but no government or politician can restrict the duty to rescue at sea, as enshrined in international maritime law.”

Source: Al Jazeera