As of 22 October, over 500 people saved from drowning in the Mediterranean are still waiting to be allocated a safe port. Activists celebrate the acquittal of NGO crew members as prosecutors confirm that Libya is not a safe port for return. New analysis of cases against “boat-drivers” in Italy finds they are targeted with disproportionate sentences. At least 24 people are dead or missing off Tunisia, while empty boats spotted raise fears of more deaths at sea.

After returning to the sea on 10 October, NGO vessel Sea-Watch 3 carried out a series of seven rescues on 17 and 18 October. 412 people were onboard the boat at the start of the week, including children. While three victims of fuel burns, a pregnant woman, and her sister were evacuated by the Italian coast guard, more than 400 others have not been permitted to disembark in Europe. A second pregnant woman was then evacuated shortly before giving birth. German NGO ResQShip picked up 34 people from two boats in Malta’s search and rescue zone on 17 October. After being left for 45 hours in cramped conditions on the small yacht, the people were disembarked in Lampedusa on 19 October. That day, the Aita Mari, operated by Salvamento Maritimo Humaniario, saved 105 people in distress in the Maltese search and rescue zone. Italy and Malta have refused to take responsibility for the rescued people on the Sea-Watch 3 and Aita Mari. Both say the rescues happened outside their zone of responsibility, while Malta refutes that the Aita Mari conducted a rescue, calling it an “interception of migrants on the high seas”.

The Mare Jonio, operated by the charity Mediterranea Saving Humans, faced a similar dilemma in May 2019 when it was refused disembarkation by Italian and Maltese authorities. After the boat was ordered by Italy’s Interior Ministry to return the 30 people onboard to Libya, a notorious unsafe port, the crew instead sailed north to Lampedusa. Italian authorities then charged the rescuers with “aggravated aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. On 20 October 2021 however, the activists were acquitted by the prosecutor’s office of Agrigento in Italy. According to the prosecutors, the situation in Libya and the criminal behaviour of the coast guard means the NGO should not have been asked to disembark people there. Aerial NGO crews on 18 October witnessed this dangerous behaviour when Libyan personnel rammed a refugee boat at full speed, threatening the lives of the 80 people onboard. Also this week, Italy’s highest court ruled that violence and inhumane treatment in the notorious Libyan detention centres can be grounds for protection in Italy. Alarm Phone feared that groups of 75 and 20 people were returned to Libya, while UNHCR reported the return of hundreds of people daily to unsafe detention centres.

A new report from Arci Porco Rosso, Alarm Phone and Borderline Sicilia finds that Italian anti-Mafia laws are misused to scapegoat migrants driving boats from Libya to Italy. Titled “From Sea to Prison: The Criminalization of Boat Drivers in Italy”, the research analysed more than 1,000 criminal cases and extensive police data. The findings show that the approach taken by prosecutors criminalises those seeking international protection and results in prison sentences for innocent people. Since 2013, at least 24 people convicted of driving boats have received sentences of more than 10 years, while six have been given life sentences. According to the NGOs, these disproportionate sentences risk “destroying the lives of those people forever”. Police were also found to have offered immigration papers or other incentives to people onboard boats to persuade them to testify against those accused of smuggling or “aiding illegal immigration”. The exploitation of migrant women in Italy meanwhile remains a very real issue, with 11 Nigerian nationals recently sentenced to a total of 136 years in prison for trafficking young women and girls to Italy where they are enslaved and forced to engage in prostitution.

22 people are missing after a boat capsized off Mahdia on the Tunisian coast. Media reported that the bodies of two or four people had been recovered. The boat carried 31 people, five times its capacity. The Associated Press reported that four people were arrested for helping to organise the attempted sea crossing.  The central Mediterranean remains the world’s deadliest maritime route, with 1,1179 deaths recorded so far by the Missing Migrants project in 2021. Thousands more people will likely go missing without a trace. Pilotes Volontaires, a French NGO that operates planes that monitor distress cases and pullbacks to Libya, this week published chilling photos of seven empty boats spotted in a single day of operations. The whereabouts of the passengers remain unknown.

A group of 27 people was located close to the coast of Calabria on 21 October, raising fears regarding deteriorating weather conditions and an ill baby onboard.  More than 100 people landed safety in Italy early in the week.

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Photo: ECRE

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