The Med 5 countries of Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Spain and Italy met in Valetta and urged increased EU focus on returns and more relocation from other member states. EU and member states continue to focus on migration cooperation in North Africa amid ongoing violence and crack-downs against migrants in the region. Italian authorities remain under scrutiny after the deadly shipwreck of Crotone. MSF Sea has launched an appeal against “illegitimate” administrative detention of the Geo Barents rescue vessel.

Shortly after a deadly shipwreck off Crotone, the Southern ‘Med 5’ member states of Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Spain and Italy met in Valetta ahead of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, of 9-10 March to agree on a common position. Reportedly, the consensus between the southern member states is a need to make returns of rejected asylum applicants and other third-country nationals who have no legal right to remain in the EU a key pillar of the Union’s migration policy – a position reflecting that of the European Commission, top EU officials and numerous other member states. Further, the Med 5’s agreed position involves a push for northern member states to accept asylum-seekers under a voluntary relocation scheme. Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi told media that just 1% of the migrants who arrived in “front-line” states along the EU’s southern border in 2022 were accepted for relocation by other EU member states. “We cannot continue to talk about the need to impose more responsibility on front-line member states, if there is not an equally prescriptive and mandatory solidarity mechanism toward the countries of first reception,” Mitarachi said. The Med 5 position was presented at the JHA Council, where Ministers discussed the internal and external dimensions of asylum and migration, although no major developments have yet emerged from the meeting, which is largely focused on examining the state of play of legislative and non-legislative proposals in the area of asylum and migration.

Meanwhile, cooperation on migration between the EU and its member states and North African countries continues. Spain is reportedly urging the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to boost cooperation with African countries. “Spain’s experience shows that the best way to deal with this phenomenon is to work with our partners to prevent irregular flows in the countries of origin and transit, based on cooperation based on mutual trust and sustained in time,” Minister of the Interior Fernando Grande-Marlaska stated on 3 March during a visit to the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. According to the minister, arrivals in Spain in 2023 have decreased by 56.9 per cent. Spain has recently beefed up cooperation with Morocco which is conducting an ongoing crack-down on migrants including victims of the Melilla tragedy. Morocco has seen a series of high-level EU visits: according to media reports, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, defined the country as “a flagship country and a pillar of stability in the region” while praising EU cooperation with the North African state during a recent visit to the capital Rabat.

Reports by EuroMed Rights document the situation of migrants in Tunisia – another key EU partner country – after recent hate speech and calls for urgent measures by President Kaïs Saïed. “Migrants have been expelled from their homes and fired from their jobs; children have been removed from their schools; women of sub-Saharan origin have been reportedly raped. Fear is growing among migrants who have been living in Tunisia, some for years, causing many families to leave the country to avoid facing violence,” said Rasmus Alenius Boserup, Executive Director of the organisation, continuing: “The European Union and its Member States, in their bilateral relations with Tunisia, must make clear that arbitrary repression and incitement to racial hatred are unacceptable, and should express solidarity with all those arrested, defamed and subjected to violence”. Reportedly, 300 West African migrants left Tunisia on repatriation flights on 4 March, in fear of a wave of violence sparked by Saied’s rhetoric and many more are desperate to leave. Monica Marks, professor of Middle East Politics, commented on 4 March on Twitter , “Ivory Coast airlifts its persecuted citizens from Tunisia. Approximately 2,000 will be repatriated. Guinea staged an emergency airlift last week. Waves of racist violence & pogroms have swept Tunisia, stoked by Kais Saied’s Feb 21 “Great Replacement” speech”. The African Union has expressed “deep shock and concern at the form and substance” of Saïed’s statements while EU reactions have been less prominent. On 9 March, Hotline Alarm Phone reported attacks by the Tunisian coastguards directed at five boats carrying 200 people. The hotline communicated that the boats’ engines were stolen and the people on board were left adrift. The 200 people were later brought ashore by fishermen when the Tunisian coastguard refused to intervene or assist. According to official figures, there are around 21,000 undocumented migrants from other parts of Africa in Tunisia, a country of about 12 million inhabitants. On the same day, there was also a shipwreck off the coast of Sfax in central-eastern Tunisia, leaving 14 people dead.

Italian authorities remain under scrutiny over the deadly shipwreck off Southern Italy on 26 February, which left at least 68 people dead. Prosecutors in Crotone have opened an investigation into what went wrong in the rescue operation – seeking an explanation of the six-hour gap between the time when the boat carrying 180 people was spotted by Frontex and the intervention by the Italian Coast Guard. And over 40 organisations presented a collective report to the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Crotone to request a transparent examination of the facts linked to the shipwreck. “We want to provide our contribution to ascertaining the facts, there can be no gray areas on possible liability in the emergency services apparatus”, the organisations said and urged Italy and Europe to drastically reduce the risk of new tragedies by putting in place an adequate and proactive search and rescue system as soon as possible. On 4 March, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told media: “No emergency communication from Frontex reached our authorities. We were not warned that this boat was in danger of sinking”. In a press release issued by Frontex on 1 March, the agency stated: “The thermal cameras on board of the Frontex airplane detected a significant thermal response from the open hatches at the bow and other signs that there might be people below the deck. This raised the suspicion of Frontex surveillance experts”. However, asked by EURACTIV whether the agency had communicated a distress signal from the vessel, Frontex replied that “as for classifying the event as Search and Rescue, according to the international law this is a responsibility of national authorities”. Meloni was challenged by journalists over the Italian coast guard’s “unwillingness or failure” to provide rescue assistance to the ship after Frontex’s signal in Italy’s Council of Ministers meeting that took place on 9 March at the location of the tragedy. The prime minister didn’t accept the accusation of having “turned away” saying “Does anyone believe that the Italian authorities did not do something that they could have done?”. Furthermore, the cabinet approved a new decree establishing harsher punishments for smugglers and traffickers. Meanwhile, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, responded to the shipwreck with a letter to Meloni dated 6 March praising the country’s response to irregular migration. “The work done by Italy and others to offer safe and legal pathways to vulnerable people through humanitarian corridors makes a vital contribution”. The letter also included proposals to “further shore up the Libyan coast guard and launch anti-smuggling partnerships with Tunisia and Egypt”.

In parallel, Meloni’s crackdown on search and rescue organisations persists, causing more tragedies. MSF Sea announced on 7 March: “An appeal has been lodged at the competent court against the detention of the search and rescue ship Geo Barents”. On 23 February, the Ancona coastguard in Italy notified the Geo Barents of the 20-day detention, and a fine of up to €10,000, for failing to provide the voyage data recorder to authorities on arrival at Ancona on 17 February to disembark people rescued at sea. “Geo Barents operates at all times in compliance with the applicable regulations and has collaborated in absolute good faith with the authorities by providing all available data related to rescue operations, in fulfilment of its duties under international law,” said Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative, continuing: “We consider this sanction, based on the request for VDR data, out of the scope of maritime law and hence an illegitimate act to obstruct civilian efforts to save lives at sea”. On 6 March, the need for NGO rescue capacity was again illustrated – InfoMigrants reported an incident: “On Monday night, a search and rescue vessel led by the Italian NGO EMERGENCY rescued 105 people in the Central Mediterranean. Nearly 60 men, 17 women and 29 minors (including 25 unaccompanied) were on board the boat”. In addition, the NGO Sea-Watch International communicated that on 8 March their Sea Bird rescue aircraft spotted 19 boats in distress carrying 1000 people but the Italian Coast Guard refused assistance offered by Sea Bird for “political reasons”, causing the death of one woman. Having over 1000 people in distress at sea in one day is “not a tragedy, but EU strategy”, the collective Front-lex commented. On 10 March, Alarm Phone also reported a boat in distress with 500 people on board off the coast of Sicily.

According to ECRE member CEAR at least 349 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean or on the Canary route in 2023 so far. However, that is just an estimate as “many people disappear without a trace”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.