By Daniel Howden

The central Mediterranean is now the busiest mixed migration route into Europe. The geography and the politics of the region have dictated roles for the main actors from the E.U. to member states Italy and Malta, as well as Libya and the countries on its southern borders in the Sahel.


Blaming the Rescuers

Six months later, in April 2015, a succession of shipwrecks culminated in the largest single loss of life in the Mediterranean when a 90ft (27m) boat thought to be carrying nearly 900 people capsized, leaving only 28 survivors. The following month, the military operation EUNAVFOR Med was launched by the E.U., aimed explicitly at disrupting the “business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks.”

But while Triton and EUNAVFOR Med both conducted search and rescue, it was not their primary mission. Instead, privately funded charity boats stepped into the gap left by Mare Nostrum.

The first of a new generation of private search and rescue missions – the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) – appeared in the Mediterranean in August 2014, founded by U.S. businessman Chris Catrambone and his Italian wife, Regina. Other groups soon joined the effort. Some, like Malta-based MOAS, were avowedly nonpolitical, while others, such as the German outfit Sea Watch, openly sought to shame E.U. member states into relaunching a dedicated state-level SAR mission.

The NGO boats and crews were not similarly equipped or trained. Some, like Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Save the Children, operated from larger vessels that could transport the refugees and migrants they rescued to Italy. Others, like the German activists of Sea Eye and Jugend Rettet, had no capacity to transfer those rescued to a safe port. Instead they would stabilize migrant boats where possible, use their own rigs as temporary life boats or get life jackets to those in the water, and call the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.

This led Sergio Liardo, the head of Italy’s MRCC, to contemplate new regulations to assure professional standards aboard the Italian-flagged vessels among the flotilla of charity boats.

Some NGOs are professionals, others are more militant and just rescue and then launch Mayday calls as they are overburdened,” Liardo said in a private meeting in Rome in May 2017. According to people present at the meeting, Liardo also discounted the idea that NGOs were colluding with or being funded by Libyans on shore: “Smugglers have no interest in migrants being rescued,” he said.

What began as a dry technical exercise to establish a code of conduct for NGO vessels quickly became political when the code was taken over by Italy’s interior ministry under the ambitious Marco Minniti, in office since December 2016. Previously the head of Italy’s intelligence services, Minniti was instrumental in a series of moves meant to emphasize the heavy migration burden placed on Italy and exert political pressure on its E.U. partners. On the eve of a July 2 meeting of Europe’s interior ministers, Italy threatened to close its ports to charity ships carrying rescued migrants.

If the only ports refugees are taken to are Italian, something is not working,” Minniti said. “We are under enormous pressure.”

When the code of conduct was leaked 10 days later it contained several controversial requirements that NGOs claimed were designed to hobble their operations, including proscribing the use of phones and flares. Worst of all, they said, was a ban on transferring those rescued to other ships to be taken to Italy. This would mean less time in the rescue zone and “more drownings,” MSF warned.

The regulations were backed by the threat that organizations who refused to sign would be barred entry to Italian ports. But the code was not supported by the MRCC in Rome and this split was revealed in a public argument between Minniti and the transport minister, Graziano Delrio, to whom the coast guard reports.

It is very simple: We are talking about rescue at sea, which is governed by international law, not by the politics of migration control,” Delrio told the Repubblica newspaper. “Is there anyone who does not consider it right to entrust this assessment to the coast guard?”

The row over the code of conduct also highlighted the E.U.’s emerging relationship with Italy, the member state most directly involved. Senior European Commission officials privately reassured the human rights lobby in Brussels that the draft code would be improved. However, by late August the Italians had ignored a second draft prepared by the commission in favor of negotiating with NGOs on a case-by-case basis.

Half the NGOs signed the code of conduct, and the remainder, including Sea Watch, Proactiva and MSF, refused. The MRCC in Rome continues to arrange the transshipment of refugees and migrants from rescue boats in open defiance of Italy’s interior ministry. And Italian ports remain open to boats carrying rescued migrants despite isolated occurrences such as the delay in accepting the Golfo Azzurro.

On August 10, the Libyan navy further complicated rescue efforts when it claimed to have reasserted its search and rescue zone and warned foreign NGOs not to enter the unspecified zone without permission. Unlike territorial and contiguous waters, search and rescue zones must be claimed, according to the guidelines of the International Maritime Organization. An English-speaking 24-hour MRCC must be staffed and the IMO informed, but these criteria have not been met. The IMO said it received a notification from the Libyan port authority, but due to “technical and editorial reasons” it had not yet been accepted.

One day after Libya’s claim, MSF announced it was suspending rescue operations after “credible threats” against it by the Libyan coast guard. Since April 2016 ten serious incidents of threats or intimidation by the Libyan coast guard against charity boats have been recorded, including the standoff over the Golfo Azzurro.

To be continued


Top Photo – An Italian navy ship sails past a burning dinghy, which was destroyed after migrants aboard were rescued (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti).


Daniel Howden – Editor at Refugees Deeply, former at Guardian, and The Economist . His Latest Investigation: Central Med: EU priorities, Libyan Realities.

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