Just weeks after 79 lives were lost, another deadly shipwreck in the Mediterranean has sparked renewed critique of EU and member states. New law decree from Italian government is a continuation of the punitive and repulsive rationale governing its migration policies.

On 12 March, the body of a child was recovered on the beach of Steccato di Cutro, in Calabria – confirmed victim number 79 of the shipwreck on 26 February and since, the death toll has reached 86 people. As the Meloni government remains under critique and authorities are under scrutiny over the delayed response to the tragedy another deadly shipwreck occurred on 12 March. 17 people were rescued while 30 are missing after a boat carrying people fleeing Libya capsized in the Central Mediterranean. In the wake of the latest deadly tragedy, not only Italy but also Malta has again come under critique over its non-response tactics: “This is another case in which Malta has refused to comply with its international obligations for rescues at sea. It has adopted a migration strategy that leaves men, women and children to drown or foists the responsibility onto other EU member states,” said Neil Falzon, director of the ECRE member, Aditus foundation. In a joint statement, Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-Watch wrote: “just two weeks after at least 79 people drowned in a shipwreck off the Italian coast, Italian and Maltese authorities left once again people dying at sea. This time, their politics of non-assistance and the delegation of their duties to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard led to the death of 30 people who were on a boat in distress in international waters, in the contested Libyan Search-and-Rescue (SAR) region. The boat carried 47 people and was adrift at sea. Of these, only 17 people survived due to the intervention of a merchant vessel. The 30 people who died could be still alive, if only the Italian and Maltese authorities had decided to immediately coordinate a proper rescue operation”. The organisations include a full timeline of events beginning with the first distress alert to Alarm Phone on 11 March, after which at 02:28h CET, the NGO hotline sent: “the first email to the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (ITMRCC), RCC Malta and the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC Libya) to inform them about the distress situation”. The timeline reveals that despite numerous and constant alerts authorities in Malta and Italy referred the responsibility to Libya who in turn declared it had no available boats. Ultimately no rescue mission was conducted and the 17 survivors were rescued only as the result of the intervention by merchant vessel FROLAND in the afternoon of 12 March after the boat had capsized.

According to EuroMed Rights: “Both shipwrecks, and many more before, raise serious concerns on the responsibility of EU Member States that could have prevented these deadly incidents. The fact that no one intervenes is an infringement of the right to life, and of maritime law, which obliges any State, any ship, to rescue any person in distress regardless of their legal status and to bring them to a safe port”. In an editorial in Domani, Nello Trocchia also emphasizes the responsibility of Italy and the EU with the latest tragedy illustrating the “disastrous policies” beginning with the Italy-Libya memorandum of 2017 and including the “externalization of border control in the Central Mediterranean, the training of the Libyan Coast Guard with the establishment of the search and rescue zone off the coast of Libya”. Reportedly, Italy has channeled almost one hundred million Euros in funding for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard since 2007.

The Commission was scrutinized at the press briefing on 13 March by journalists seeking answers to why the EU-funded so-called Libyan Coast Guard did not conduct a rescue operation. The correspondent from Radio Radicale, David Carretta, pointed out that an obvious explanation for the lack of intervention by Libyan authorities is that their aim is not search and rescue but rather interception and return. The following day the Commission issued a press release, on the adoption of a Communication presenting the strategic framework for European integrated border management (EIBM) for 5 years, including a reference to search and rescue, described as “a key component” and underlining “the need for coordination is a priority between flag and coastal states, as well as the need to develop best practices on timely and full information sharing”. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 3,500 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2023 as of 11 March and 300 lives had already been lost on the central Mediterranean route this year, prior to the latest tragedy. SOS Mediterranée reports that over 20,000 lives have been lost in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

Death at sea was also among the topics of a plenary debate in the European Parliament on 15 March with a severe critique of the lack of response from the Commission and member states including by MEPs from the Left and Green groups as well as S&D and Renew Europe. In advance of the debate, the Green group put out a statement, pointing to the urgent: “need to create safe and legal pathways for those seeking safety in Europe and stop forcing people who have no other option to reach safety into unseaworthy vessels across dangerous seas. The current EU approach leaves NGOs to do the vital work that Member States should be doing, while those very same Member States are in turn criminalising these NGOs”. Earlier, in advance of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, 9-10 March MEPs from Renew Europe called for “a coordinated EU response to save lives at sea and comprehensive action to ensure safe and legal pathways to the EU”. The MEPs stated: “We cannot afford to wait while lives are being lost at our shores on a daily basis. Even more so, it is our international and European obligation to do everything within our power to save these lives. The European Union needs efficient Search and Rescue missions as part of state obligations as well as new legal pathways to Europe to combat smuggling, and to encourage migrants to stop embarking on unsafe journeys to our borders”.

Over the days before the latest tragedy, several rescues by the Italian authorities were reported but the number of distress cases is according to Sea-Watch International “overwhelming”. The organisation stated on 11 March: “For three days in a row, our Airborne crew flew to the maximum and was able to sight 41 boats in distress. With them, overstretching, miscalculations and inaction on the part of the authorities became visible”. The organisation regrets that the lack of cooperation and coordination with NGO search and rescue operators is preventing them from saving lives at sea. The Italian government has been widely criticized over its crack-down on civilian rescue operators and the controversial law decree imposing strict conditions on them, approved by the parliament on 15 February. At a press conference on 9 March, staged in the Calabrian town of Cutro – where the coffins of 79 victims of the shipwreck in February were displayed – prime minister Meloni presented the government’s latest decree. The decree contains urgent provisions on the legal entry of foreign workers and the prevention and the fight against irregular immigration. The provisions related to prevention include more severe penalties of 2-6 years of imprisonment for those who promote, organise, finance or carry out the transport of foreigners, as well as the introduction of a new crime “death or injury as a result of crimes in the field of illegal immigration”, punishable by up to thirty years of imprisonment. In the Italian outlet, Corriere Della Sera, Domenico Affinito and Milena Gabanelli point out that the new decree on legal entry, limiting legal access from the main countries of origin of the migrants arriving by sea and requiring complex bureaucracy, does not properly address the need to ensure safe and legal access to Italy. Further, the decree introduces a strengthening of the network of detention centres for returns. Finally, it limits the circumstances for cases in which the national form of protection (protezione speciale) can be recognised, excluding those in which the status is granted due to family and social ties and cases of people who have been in Italy for many years and have fully integrated. In a comment on this aspect the Executive of Magistratura Democratica, notes that the response to the latest tragedies was not a critical review “of the punitive and repulsive rationale that governed migration policies” but rather the exclusion of people from the legal system. According to the association (translated): “The immediate consequence may be to produce an army of irregulars who cannot be removed, in the absence of agreements for repatriation with the majority of the countries from which they come, and who will feed the market of illegal work and exploitation or crime, on which increasingly intrusive economic potentates profit, interested in reducing labour costs (e.g. in the agri-food or logistics sectors)”.

For further information:


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