The Italian authorities continue the policy of assigning distant ports to NGO rescue vessels for the disembarkation of survivors. Malta failed to rescue more than 7,000 people in distress in the country’s SAR zone in 2022 and reports of non-response tactics continue to mount. EU partners, Tunisia and Libya continue their pull back operations and abuse of migrants, according to European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).
Reporting for El Pais from the Astral rescue vessel operated by the Spanish NGO Open Arms, Lola Hierro summarises the main aspects of the ongoing crack-down by Italian authorities on civilian rescue operators: “Migrant rescues have been criminalized, and new laws prevent humanitarian organizations from saving lives”. Meanwhile, Italian authorities – that have declared a state of emergency over the arrival of more than 39,000 people by sea in 2023, and introduced law decrees carrying punitive measures and preventing NGOs from conducting rescue operations – continue the practice of assigning distant ports of disembarkation for survivors, ECRE reported.
On 2 May, SOS MEDITERRANEE stated: “This morning, the 168 women, men & children on board Ocean Viking reach a Place of Safety in the port of Civitavecchia after +940km of navigation. Assigning unreasonably distant port is worsening the fragile condition of survivors & emptying the Central Med of vital SAR assets”.
On the same day, MSF Sea reported: “The illegitimate practice of distant ports continues… Italian authorities have assigned us La Spezia as a place of safety to disembark the 336 survivors currently aboard Geo Barents”. The organisation added: “Other suitable ports are significantly closer to our current location. Why not Pozzalo, Palermo or Augusta again? Reminder: this is against international law and this is unacceptable”. Following, a rescue by the Italian Coast Guard, assisted by RESQSHIP and the Sea-watch plane Seabird, on 30 April 35 survivors disembarked on Lampedusa. Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi visitedLampedusa in late April where the overcrowded hotspot with a capacity of 400 hosted more than 2,500 people.
The government has seen some pushback from local authorities with many regions refusing to ratify the six-month nationwide state of emergency over the lack of information and involvement in the legislative process. Piantedosi is reportedly seeking an agreement promoting a model of “widespread reception”. While the minister rules out the establishment of large reception centers in the future, he added that first reception facilities in the southern regions of Calabria and Sicily will continue to be expanded.
Malta, which has seen severe critique by NGOsand human rights actors as well as Italy over its non-response tactics to distress alerts in its SAR zone, failed to rescue 7,459 people in distress in 2022, according to statistics compiled in the updated Country Report from the Asylum Information Database (AIDA) managed by ECRE. The AIDA report further highlights accusations of Malta’s involvement in at least 14 pushbacks in 2022, involving 789 people, based on an estimation “on incidents reported by rescue NGOs and news agencies”.
Pushbacks and reluctance to carry out rescues at sea is considered the main reason behind a substantial drop in asylum seekers in Malta in 2022 with a total of 973 applicants down 1,281 in 2021. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, in her activity report for 2022, urged Malta to effectively coordinate search and rescue operations and to review and suspend cooperation with Libya on migration. Alarm Phone reported on Maltese authorities ignoring distress alerts of boats carrying 78 and 36 peoplerespectively on 28 April and 1 May. The following day, Sea-Watch International stated: “Gambling with people’s lives: Malta again disregards its duty to rescue at sea and orders a merchant ship not to rescue 36 people”. However, Malta and its policies are receiving praise from European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi. “Our view is that the work Malta is doing is a critical contribution to our European migration policy. Malta is the closest – from our member states – to the Maghreb region, and it is facing the direct challenge of smugglers and the illegal migration phenomenon.
The work of the navy and the administration of the Maltese government is critical also when it comes to defending European borders and this is why I think we need to continue to rely on them and continue to support them in their work”, Olivér Várhelyi stated. The Hungarian national further offered the following statement: “First of all, don’t engage in illegal activity to get to another country. If you want to get to another country, first you apply for a visa, a humanitarian visa and asylum, and then embark on a journey that is safe. Travelling with smugglers is never safe. Don’t trust smugglers”. To which Director of ECRE member, Aditus Foundation, Neil Falzon responded: “Is the EU Commission seriously saying refugees are entitled to humanitarian visas? Where? Which Embassies? Which EU MS? How? When?”.
Tunisia remains a key EU partner in migration prevention despite the ongoing crack-down on migrants and democracy in the country. Thousands of people seeking to flee Tunisia and reach Europe are pulled back by the coast guard. Both the coast guard and local fishermen have reportedly stolen engines from boats carrying migrants and in a recent attack a girl aged four fell into the sea and drowned. According to the Tunisian Red Crescent, more than 800 bodies were recovered in the Sfax region alone in 2022, and more than 300 have been found since the beginning of 2023 leaving hospitals, morgues and burial grounds without sufficient capacity. Reportedly, Tunisia is running out of places to bury the bodies of migrants washing up on its shores. “Due to the influx of a large number of victims, more than 170 bodies have exceeded the capacity to accommodate the forensic medicine department of Habib Bourghiba university hospital,” said a statement from the Sfax governorate, after an emergency meeting with health authorities to find “radical solutions” to the problem including “quickly allocating a cemetery for immigrants and the provision of refrigerated trucks to transport often decomposing bodies”. Associate researcher at Mecmi, a research group that seeks to examine deaths during migration, Filippo Furri, stated: “The Tunisian system for receiving and managing the bodies was not prepared for such a situation. The forensic medicine departments are collapsing, the cemeteries are collapsing. The bodies of migrants are suspended in limbo”. Furri added: “Tunisian coroners who perform autopsies on the bodies of sub-Saharan asylum seekers serve to establish the causes of death and not the identity of the victim. There is no obligation for the authorities to identify a body. If, in addition, there are no family members who report a disappearance, the identification becomes ‘irrelevant’ for the authorities”. In late April, Alarm Phone published testimonies from refugees in Tunisia describing the dire situation and the need for evacuations. According to the testimonies: “After the racist speech of President Kais Saied on February 21, racism has escalated in the country. Increasing numbers of black people have been verbally and physically attacked, robbed of their belongings, fired from their jobs, and evicted by their landlords. In addition, many have been arbitrarily detained by the security forces, several of which remain in prison without any legal assistance”. Further, protests in front of UN offices by migrants demanding evacuation were met by police attacking “people (including children) with tear gas, causing serious injuries” and arrests with detainees reporting “having been subjected to beatings and torture with electroshock”. Accordingto the UNHCR, out of a population of nearly 10,000 forcibly displaced persons currently living in Tunisia, only 20 people were resettled to safe third countries in 2022.
On 29 April, Sea-Watch International reported: “Rescue coordination centre Rome orders merchant ship to break international law. The GRIMSTAD has rescued ⁓30 people in the Med & was ordered by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome to take the people to Libya. This is a violation of the non-refoulement principle”. The Italian Coast Guard denied the allegations, stating: “It has not given instructions, or rather orders, to the command of the ship GRIMSTAD to head, after having carried out the rescue of the migrants, towards the Libyan coast”. The guard claimed the request for help from the boat had occurred 50 miles from the Libyan coast, within the Search and Rescue (SAR) zone of the North African country, and therefore the relief operations were carried out under Libya’s responsibility. According to IOM Libya, in the period of 23 – 29 April 2023, 484 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya bringing the total in 2023 to 4819. Reports of severe abuse continue to mount and UN secretary-general, António Guterres as recently as last month reiterated that Libya is not a safe port of disembarkation due to violations against refugees and migrants, including in detention centres, stating: “Any refugees and migrants intercepted along the central Mediterranean route should be assigned a safe port of disembarkation, in accordance with the law of the sea, international maritime law, international human rights law and refugee law”. However, like Tunisia, Libya remains a close partner of the EU. A Libyan delegation consisting of the Libyan border guard and Libyan customs officers attended the World Border Congress 2023 in Skopje, North Macedonia from 25 to 27 April, the Libyan delegation was hosted by the Border Management Unit of EUBAM Libya.