Almost decade after the loss of more than 300 lives off Lampedusa shocked the EU not much has changed. Italy continues its crack-down on civilian rescue operators as an expert body under the Council of Europe urges the revoking of the controversial SAR decree. Meloni signs massive gas deal and increases migration cooperation with Libya.

Nearly ten years have passed since more than 300 lives were lost in a deadly tragedy off Lampedusa in 2013, sparking strong reactions at EU level. Former president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso said at the time: “The kind of tragedy we have witnessed here so close to the coast should never happen again”. The top EU official saw a need for the EU to boost: “our surveillance system to track boats, so that we can launch a rescue operation and bring people back to safe grounds before they perish”. However, as reported by Associated Press, little has changed since and: “The International Organization for Migration says more than 25,000 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014”. As outlined in a recent GIS report the main structural challenges remain unchanged with northern and southern EU member states struggling to find common ground and ensure solidarity with the dysfunctional Dublin system as a key obstacle and climate change set to increase future displacement challenges.

Meanwhile, amid fears of new deadly shipwrecks on the Mediterranean and confirmation of 8 new deaths including a four months old baby, the showdown between Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni’s government and NGO search and rescue operators continue. Reportedly, during the first 100 days in office the PM has failed to deliver on promises to stop migrant arrivals: “Statistics released by the interior ministry prove migrant boat arrivals have not only failed to slow down, but have grown dramatically since Meloni took office. The first ten days of the new year alone registered an 880% increase from 2022”. As reported by Financial Times: “with few real means to stem the flow of migrants striving to reach Europe, prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s government is instead turning up the heat on humanitarian organisations that rescue people at risk of drowning during their potentially deadly Mediterranean crossings”. As part of the crack-down on NGO rescue operators the Italian government has introduced a controversial law decree limiting the number of rescues private vessels can perform in a single deployment at sea forcing them, at the risk of fines of up to 50,000 Euro and seizure of their vessels, to proceed immediately to a port of safety assigned by the Italian authorities once a rescue operation has been conducted even if other boats are in distress at sea. The Expert Council on NGO Law under the Council of Europe has issued its opinion on the Decree Law No. 1, of 2 January 2023, considering its compatibility with European standards on civil society space, stating: “It recommends the Italian Government to consult with civil society groups most affected and to revoke the law until adequate and effective steps are taken to ensure that migrants’ lives are not being put at risk by the inability of search and rescue NGOs to work effectively”. In a letter addressed to the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Piantedosi, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic calls on the Italian government to withdraw or revise the Decree’s provisions, as they “could hamper NGO search and rescue operations and, therefore, be at variance with Italy’s obligations under human rights and international law”. The Commissioner also notes that: “The decree and the practice of assigning distant ports to disembark people rescued at sea risk depriving people in distress of life-saving assistance from NGOs on the deadliest migration route in the Mediterranean”.

However, Italy continues the deliberate delay of disembarkations with the latest examples following the recent rescues of more than 300 people by Ocean Viking operated by SOS Mediterranee and Geo Barents operated by MSF Sea. The Civil Fleet stated on 29 January: “Following the rescue, the Italian authorities ordered the Geo Barents to sail almost 700 nautical miles away to the northern Italian city of La Spezia — this would be like Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution being told to disembark people rescued in the waters off Guernsey in Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland”. The blog further reported: “Meanwhile, another rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, is making its way to the distant port of Carrara, northern Italy — 1,500 km (932 miles) away from where her crew saved the lives of 95 people in international waters off Libya”. NGO rescue operators denounce the policy of assigning distant ports as it is straining their ability to continue to save lives, putting vulnerable survivors at risk and increases operational costs. According to Geo Barents’ head of mission, Juan Matias Gil: “Compared to disembarking in Sicily, going all the way to La Spezia costs us 70,000 euros in fuel alone”. SOS Mediterranee and MSF Sea confirmed disembarkation of survivors in Carrara and La Spezia, respectively and reportedly they were greeted by locals with refugees welcome banners. However, according to local media (translated): “The journey of unaccompanied minor migrants rescued by Geo Barents seems to never end. After 100 hours of navigation to get to La Spezia, the assigned port, many were transported by land to Foggia. 87 minors had boarded the ship: 74 of them were unaccompanied. Of the total, only 23 remained in La Spezia. The other 51, however, were transferred around Italy between Alessandria, Livorno and Foggia”. Journalist, Eleonora Camilli defined the transfers as: “The logistics of cruelty”.

Italian PM, Meloni recently met with Libyan officials from the conflict ridden country’s west-based government and signed a gas deal worth $8 billion – reportedly representing the largest single investment in Libya’s energy sector in more than two decades. At a joint press conference, Meloni announced that Italy will provide five “fully equipped” boats to Libya’s notorious so-called coast guard to help stem the “flow” of migrants to the European shores. Alarm Phone, stated: ”While this is nothing new, it is worrying,” – “This will inevitably lead to more people being abducted at sea and forced to return to places they had sought to escape from”. Seebrücke International stated: “Once again, the so-called Libyan coast guard is being supported by a European state, thus enabling the illegal return of people on the move into a cycle of violence. It is not acceptable that countries committed to human rights support human rights violations in other states!” Human Rights Watch stated on 1 February: “Italy’s Memorandum of Understanding on Migration with Libya will be automatically renewed on February 2 for three years, after the November 22 date for making changes passed”. The organisation further commented: “In its obsession to keep migrants and asylum seekers away from its shores, Italy is paying for tens of thousands of people to be intercepted and returned to Libya, where they face abuses that the UN describes as possible crimes against humanity”. Sea-Watch International stated on 2 February: “Six years ago, the Libya-Italy Memorandum has been concluded. These agreements have led to illegal and brutal pullbacks of more than 185,000 people back to Libya to date. It’s a shame!”.

On 27 January, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported the pull-back of 35 people by so-called Libyan Coast Guard. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 331 people were intercepted and returned to Libya between 22 and 28 January. The total for 2023 so far is 1,434.

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