NGOs lament ‘human costs’ in Italy’s attempt to limit refugees | Migration News

New law passed by the Italian government earlier this year to limit undocumented migration to Italy has been criticized by search and rescue organizations working across the Mediterranean who say the move will increase number of deaths in the region.

On January 2 of this year, the Italian government passed a series of laws aimed at fulfilling one of the conservative party’s key electoral promises on migration.

This law requires captains of rescue ships to claim a port immediately after the rescue and head there instead of continuing at sea and assisting with multiple distress calls. This also means that sometimes ships are unable to carry out rescue efforts for up to a week.

Lucille Guenier, communications officer for SOS Mediterranee, said: “The Middle Mediterranean has been the deadliest sea migration route since 2014 due to the lack of marine rescue facilities in this exact area.

“Sending rescue NGOs out of the area of ​​operations will only increase the number of people drowning.”

Migrants and refugees resting on a lifeboat
European countries, many of which have opened their borders to Ukrainians, have been criticized for their double standards in dealing with migrants and refugees from elsewhere. [File: Juan Medina/Reuters]

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

“We had to leave behind many other boats [in distress]The possibility of accidents and drowning is very high,” Gil said.

“Last year, we did 16 missions a week and rescued a total of 3,050 people. If we had left after the first rescue, we would have rescued 1,030 people. This is the human cost of a decree that only tries to minimize the time we have in the SAR area.”

heavy penalty

Under the law, if captains fail to comply, they risk being fined 50,000 euros ($54,000) — a substantial amount for these philanthropic NGOs — and having their ship confiscated.

The new rule prohibits SARs from performing multiple rescues on the same voyage, meaning ships must pass through people in distress, contrary to many international conventions and legal agreements, such as the Convention. International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Over the past few months, the Italian government has increasingly designated remote ports for unloading – on Italy’s west and northern coasts, which do not have the same migrant and refugee receiving system as ports. is different.

Maximilian James, a spokesman for Sea-Eye, said: “Italy assigned us the port of Livorno and directed us to go directly to the port, although the case of the accident is still open.”

“But because we carried out the rescue anyway, 45 people were able to be saved after 6 days at sea. If we had gone straight to the port of Livorno, these people would have been dead. Our mission, like every ship’s, is to save people in distress at sea.”

For years, humanitarian and solidarity organizations in the Mediterranean have warned of escalating crises in the region – state-led SAR missions have largely been discontinued after 2014 and the NGOs must step in and fill the void.

Since then, NGOs and humanitarian organizations have accused governments, as well as European Union agencies such as Frontex, of collaborating with government forces, including the security force. Libya’s coast guard, to bring people back to where they were fleeing.

Many crew members of the SAR and charities say the order is just the latest in an assault on humanitarian organizations trying to save lives.

“Migrants are now trying to make this journey many times, almost six, seven times,” Gil said. “Every time they pay the price. The people who benefit the most are the smugglers, and the people who suffer the most are the migrants.”

Refugees in ‘most desperate situation’

In October 2022, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Italian Brotherhood party won a nationalist anti-immigration platform, announcing that it would take drastic measures to curb traffickers. and mafia organizations that profit from migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

Charities and regional watchdogs say increased efforts by EU member states such as Greece and Italy to criminalize and roll back their work have resulted in more deaths . By 2022, more than 2,000 migrants and refugees are at risk of drowning or going missing, according to IOM’s Missing Migrants project.

Sasha Ockendon, social media and public relations officer at SOS Humanity, said: “We have seen firsthand how many people fleeing Libya have suffered violence, torture and rape.

“We rescue many pregnant women and minors from unsafe boats. They are in the most desperate situation, and have no choice but to risk the journey.”

A refugee looks at the sun on the island of Sicily from a lifeboat
The new Italian government has banned search and rescue organizations from carrying out multiple rescues on the same journey [Juan Medina/Reuters]

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

This is contrary to United Nations guidance and other laws on the right to asylum – that is, asylum claims must be processed after disembarkation in a safe place and immediate needs must be addressed. decide in advance.

“The decree of the Italian government comes at a time when the EU has stopped carrying out rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Oliver Kulikowski, a spokesman for Sea-Watch, said that no European rescue mission, only European aerial surveillance, was complicit in the illegal pushback by passing information to other agents. Libyan ally.

“The new attempt to keep civilian rescue organizations out of the Mediterranean for as long as possible will not only lead to more deaths, but is also designed to prevent some witnesses from eventually recording death policies. European violence and human rights violations.”

Criminalize rescue efforts

In addition to such decrees, humanitarian organizations and NGOs have faced excessive criminalization of their efforts from countries such as Greece and Italy, which are increasingly take a tougher stance against NGOs working to save lives at sea.

Earlier this month, Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder were among two dozen humanitarian activists who were put on trial in Greece, in a move widely condemned by international human rights groups as well as by humanitarian groups. widely referred to as “cold” and “ridiculous”.

The crew of the Iuventa, a ship carrying out SAR missions, was 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 intercepted 10 times. One of their vessels is still kept in Italy.

“Since 2017, Italy and other EU countries have attempted to impede search and rescue operations of NGOs by defamation, administrative harassment and criminalization,” said Ockendon. NGOs and activists”.

“We are used to these efforts by now – but no government or politician can limit rescue missions at sea, as provided for in international maritime law.”


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