As Spain and Morocco continue to stall a thorough investigation of the deadly ‘Melilla tragedy’, Moroccan authorities add 25 people to its wave of arrests and the Ombudsman raises critique of Spanish authorities. Sea-Watch 3 remains blocked in Italy despite a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as Malta continues non-response tactics instructing a merchant vessel to take survivors to Egypt. Protest over Italy Libya agreement expected to be renewed in November.   

The controversy over the tragic loss of at least 37 lives at the Melilla border crossing between Morocco and Spain in June continues. While authorities in both countries have been reluctant to ensure a thorough investigation of the deadly incident, Morocco has sentenced dozens of its survivors to imprisonment on charges including “illegal entry onto Moroccan soil” and “violence against law enforcement officers”. On Sunday 16 October, another 25 people from Sudan and Chad were detained in the Gourougou forest near the Spanish enclave of Melilla. “Morocco is acting as a policeman for European immigration policy,” said Omar Naji, Nador chief of the AMDH rights group. Adding authorities “should have protected these asylum seekers instead of arresting them”. Meanwhile, an advance release of a report by the Spanish Ombudsman defines the incident as “a situation of foreseeable risk” with no account “taken of the Spanish and international legal guarantees of the rights of migrants”, including the right to seek asylum. The investigation by the Ombudsman is ongoing. According to InfoMigrants, the Canarian route has deviated over recent months with the main point of departure being the coast between Tan-Tan southern Morocco and Laayoune, north of the Sahara, just opposite Lanzarote and Fuerteventura only 100-150 kilometers away. Between 16 and 17 October, Spanish rescuers from Salvamento Marítimo rescued 380 people attempting to reach the Canary Islands in makeshift boats. And on 18 October the NGO hotline Alarm Phone confirmed another rescue of 45 people attempting to reach the Canary Islands from Morocco by the Spanish rescue operator.  Again on the 19 October, Salvamento Marítimo rescued 11 Algerian nationals including three children and a baby of 8 months after the group had been adrift for four days.

Sea-Watch 3 operated by Sea-Watch International has been blocked by Italian authorities since 21 September 2022 despite a ruling in August by ECJ declaring arbitrary port state controls (PSC) unlawful. The organisation stated on 18 October: “Due to the arbitrary blockade of the Sea-Watch 3, we currently have no ship in operation – nevertheless, we fly with Seabird every day and support the civil fleet from the air. In the past few days, our crew was able to spot numerous boats and people in distress”. Maltese authorities continue their non-response tactics to people in distress on the Mediterranean. A joint statement by Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Médecins Sans Frontières  (MSF) and Sea-Watch released on 19 October, describes how on 26 September: “23 people were sent to Egypt on the instructions of the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) of Malta, after being rescued in the Maltese search and rescue (SAR) region by the merchant vessel Shimanami Queen, navigating under the Panama state flag”. According to the organisations: “In line with maritime conventions, RCC Malta is legally responsible for coordinating any rescue operations in the event of an emergency or accident within its SAR region. In this specific case, RCC Malta instructed merchant vessels in the immediate vicinity of the boat in distress either to continue their voyage or merely to stay on standby, therefore delaying the rescue significantly. The lack of clear guidance and the unnecessary delays in coordinating the rescue deliberately put the lives of the 23 people on board at imminent risk” adding: This is a common practice by the Maltese authorities to avoid having to engage in a rescue operation themselves and to prevent arrivals in Malta, as witnessed and documented in several cases by civil SAR organisations”.  On 17 October: Tunisian fishermen rescued 35 people and the Nadir vessel operated by RESQSHIP managed to alert Italian authorities and prevent the group returned by Tunisian authorities. A four-year-old unaccompanied girl reached Lampedusa without her family on 17 October in an overcrowded boat. Reportedly, her parents and sister were left behind in Tunisia as the boat departing in a rush.

On 17 October, MSF Sea reported of its vessel, Geo Barents conducting several rescue operations saving nearly 100 people including 17 children and bringing the total number of survivors aboard close to 300 following additional rescues on 16 October and 17 October. The organisation stated on 19 October: “The Geo Barents is currently heading north and handing overactive search to SOS Humanity. After facing harrowing journeys, abuse, and detention in Libya, the 293 men, women and children on board promptly need to reach a place of safety”. Nine days after the first rescue the survivors were finally assigned a port of disembarkation in Taronto, Italy on 21 October. MSF Sea reports of a survivor: “showing our medical team wounds sustained in Libya that were left untreated. Some are the results of the violence and abuse that many of them experiences in the country”. On 21 October, Alarm Phone reported of 32 people adrift off Benghazi, urging a rescue.

EU and member state support to and cooperation with Libyan authorities including the notorious so-called Libyan Coast Guard to deter migration has been widely critisised as de-facto complicity in the extreme human rights abuse in the war-torn country. On 15 October, activists gathered in Italian cities including Rome and Naples to protest against the Italy-Libya agreement that was renewed for another three years in February 2020 and is due to come to an end early in 2023 but expected to be renewed in November 2022.

16,627 people had “disembarked on Libyan shores” in 2022 as of 1 October, according to the International Organization for Migration  IOM Libya. The majority of these people would have been intercepted and returned by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard that is funded and trained by the EU and its member states.

For further information:

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