During a visit to Cyprus, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson stated that the EU will seek ways to stem arrivals from Turkey, but did not offer further details. Italy’s Interior Minister has declared that parts of the European Pact on Migration and Asylum are “unacceptable” for the bloc’s five southern member states. The Mediterranean route continues to be busy with rescues and arrivals, interceptions and returns to unsafe Libya.

During a visit by Commissioner Johansson the Interior Minister of Cyprus Nicos Nouris called for additional support from the EU. According to the minister, the authorities face serious problems managing control of the green line – the demilitarized zone separating Cyprus – and face the highest number of asylum applications relative to population in the EU. Johansson explained that the Frontex mandate only extends to external borders but also stated that: “it’s not impossible to find a way forward” on preventing migrants from leaving Turkey to reach Cyprus and other member states. The Commissioner, who is set to hold high-level talks in Ankara next month, didn’t reveal what such a way forward would entail. Further, the Commissioner said that she had “question marks” about an agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon to return boats that approach the Cypriot coastline, noting that EU regulations stipulate that people can seek asylum at the bloc’s sea borders.

Following a meeting in Malaga, the southern member states of Cyprus, Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece (the “MED5”) urged for increased EU solidarity with “front-line” member states, and demanded a central role in EU decision making on asylum and migration. The five confirmed reservations regarding the European Pact on Migration and Asylum with Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese stating that Italy: “has never hidden the fact that in the Pact’s proposal there are points that are unacceptable for our country and for Med5”. In a joint statement the Interior Ministers call for a “prevention strategy as the most important priority in the fight against irregular migration and human trafficking” and say that “arrivals, whether they include people who really need international protection or not, prompt increased secondary movements, an overload of systems of asylum, reception and return, and above all, a dramatic loss of human lives.” The five States reiterated “the need for common European participation in returns, and an active role of the EU’s organisations in the external dimension”.

Activity on the central Mediterranean meanwhile shows little sign of slowing down. Within just a few hours on the night of 27 September, 800 people landed on Lampedusa in several boats. In the biggest single arrival in years, 686 people from Syria, Bangladesh, Morocco and Egypt arrived from Libya crammed into a 15-meter long fishing vessel. Five survivors were brought to hospital due to medical conditions. Another 117 people arrived onboard five additional vessels later in the night. All new arrivals in Lampedusa are taken to a temporary reception centre with a capacity for 250 people: with the latest arrivals, the facility is now severely overcrowded and holding more than 1,000 people. Announcing the end of its intervention in the Lampedusa hotspot, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) states: “A structural plan for the reception of migrants and refugees is more than ever needed. The emergency approach that is still used does not ensure a dignified welcome nor does it respond to the health needs of people, especially of the vulnerables”.

Numerous additional incidents have been recorded over the past week. On September 24 the Ocean Viking spotted a boat in distress with about 26 people onboard. The crew of SOS Mediterranée Italy provided assistance before the Italian Coast Guard completed the rescue. After days of waiting 122 survivors onboard the Ocean Viking finally disembarked in Sicily. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported on 26 September nine people in distress off Sardinia with no information from Italian authorities regarding their situation. The same day, 204 survivors onboard a fishing boat disembarked in the port of Messina after being intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard off the Ionian coast of Calabria. Due to a fire on the fishing boat, the people were transferred to four navy vessels. Alarm Phone reported on 27 September 70 people in distress in the Maltese SAR zone with whom the organisation later lost contact. Despite alerting the Italian and Maltese authorities, the NGO had no confirmation of their fate. The hotline on 28 September also reported of 27 people on four boats in distress between Algeria and Italy. 60 people rescued on 20 September by MSF’s Geo Barents vessel were finally granted permission to disembark in Sicily after seven requests to authorities in Malta and Italy.

As of late September, Italy has seen more than 44,000 people disembark: this is nearly double the number during the same period of 2020 when the COVID pandemic peaked and more than six times the number of arrivals as of late September of 2019. The vast majority, or more than 36,000, have arrived in Sicily. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has registered 1,115 people as dead or missing on the central Mediterranean route as of 25 September.

A draft action plan from the European Commission on cooperation on migration with Niger, published by Statewatch, says that “new working arrangements will be signed between Frontex and EU missions EUCAP Sahel Niger and EUBAM Libya”. The Commission: ”intends to step up border management support at Libya’s Southern border, while in parallel strengthening cross-border cooperation between Libya and its bordering countries in the South, including Niger”. IOM Libya reports that 865 people were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya between 19-25 September. A total of 25,285 people including 917 children have been returned to Libya in 2021 so far. The widespread and well-documented abuse committed against people on the move in Libya is summarised by the Libya Review: “In traffickers’ camps as well as official detention centers, thousands of migrants are tortured for extortion purposes, and women often suffer sexual violence. A number of underage girls have claimed they had been raped in a prison run by the Ministry of the Interior in Tripoli”. The blurry lines between officials and criminals were illustrated when the Deputy Head of the Libyan Presidential Council, Abdullah Al-Lafi, met with notorious Libyan human trafficker, Abdel-Rahman Milad (Al-Bidja), at the Naval Academy in Janzour on 24 September. Al-Bidja is the former head of the so-called Libyan coast guard in the Western region and has long record of human trafficking crimes. When he was released from prison in April a former detainee described him as: “A monster, who is capable of shooting a human being as he would shoot an animal”.

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Photo: ECRE

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