The number of arrivals across the Central Mediterranean has increased as has the death toll – the UN migration agency, International Organization for Migration (IOM), says delays and gaps in state-led SAR are costing human lives. Renewed critique of the Italian government over state of emergency declaration as new measures targeting temporary protection is under debate. NGOs call on the EU and member states to end funding and cooperation with unsafe Tunisia.

According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the Central Mediterranean was the most active route in the first quarter of 2023 with nearly 28,000 “irregular border crossings” – three times the number from 2022. The agency states that in March the “total detections on this route increased almost nine-fold compared to last year to more than 13 000”. Figures released by the IOM reveal that the first three months of 2023 mark the deadliest first quarter on record since 2017 with a total of 441 documented migrant deaths in the Central Mediterranean. On 17 April, IOM reported that at least 494 lives have been lost in the Central Mediterranean so far this year”. “With more than 20,000 deaths recorded on this route since 2014, I fear that these deaths have been normalized. States must respond. Delays and gaps in State-led SAR are costing human lives”, said IOM Director General, António Vitorino. The UN migration agency states that: “Delays in State-led rescues on the Central Mediterranean route were a factor in at least six incidents this year leading to the deaths of at least 127 people. The complete absence of response to a seventh case claimed the lives of at least 73 migrants”. Further, IOM points out that “NGO-led SAR efforts have been markedly diminished”, noting: “On 25 March, the Libyan Coast Guard fired shots in the air as NGO rescue ship Ocean Viking was responding to a report of a rubber boat in distress. Separately, on Sunday, 26 March, another vessel, the Louise Michel, was detained in Italy after rescuing 180 people at sea, echoing an earlier case in which the Geo Barents was detained in February and subsequently released”. On 13 April, UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk expressed alarm over the situation of asylum-seekers and migrants attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean.  He called for concerted efforts to ensure their swift rescue, as well as “dignified, effective and thorough processing at a safe location”. According to Türk “Experience teaches us that adopting a tougher line on curbing irregular migration will not prevent departures, but rather result in more human suffering and deaths at sea. Instead, it would be far better for countries to provide safe and regular pathways for migration and prevent unnecessary deaths”.

Meanwhile, deaths, distress and rescues continue in the central Mediterranean. On 18 April a boat carrying 19 people sank off Sfax in Tunisia leaving 15 missing. Sea-watch International reported that its airplane Seabird had identified two boats in distress on 15 April. In response to a distress call from the aircrew, EMERGENCY NGO rescued 55 people from an overcrowded inflatable boat. In a second operation, another 221 people were rescued off Lampedusa by the Italian Coast Guard. Reportedly, another 600 people in distress were rescued by the Italian coast guard in bad weather conditions over the weekend of 15-16 April off Sicily. On 16 April, Alarm Phone reported of two boats in distress in the Maltese SAR zone carrying 60 people who were eventually rescued by merchant vessels at the request of Maltese authorities after they initially had instructed  the merchant vessels not to intervene. The disembarkation of the group on 17 April in Malta – a country systematically applying non-response tactics in its rescue zone – marks the largest arrival in months. The critique over Malta’s lack of response to distress calls has moved beyond NGOs and human rights actors. Following a recent rescue by the Italian Coast Guard of 400 people that had passed through the Maltese SAR zone, Tommaso Foti, from the ruling party Brothers of Italy, said in the Italian lower house of parliament that “Malta’s attitude is starting to grate”. MSF Sea announced on 17 April that its rescue vessel Geo Barents “has left the port and is heading back to the Central Med ready to provide assistance to people being left to drown at sea”. The organisation added: “As long as there are people at risk fleeing Libya and crossing the Central Med, our team will be there”. A day later, Alarm Phone reported: “100 people off the coast of Libya in urgent distress! This morning we were called by ~100 people on a rubber boat. They said their boat is sinking and fear the worst. So far, we couldn’t reach the so-called Libyan Coastguard on any of their numbers”. On the same day, the crew of rescue organisation Sea-Watch International “witnessed two illegal returns” to Libya by the EU-funded so-called Libyan Coastguard. According to the IOM more than 4,200 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2023 as of 15 April. A UN Fact-Finding Mission  warned over “arbitrary detention, murder, rape, enslavement, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance” with the EU complicit through its financial support of the Libyan Coast Guard and the Libyan Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). On 18 April, Refugees in Libya reported that “security forces on Sunday raided several houses belonging to refugees & immigrants, claiming that the people were readying for boat crossings. During the operations 917 people were arbitrarily detained”.

On 20 April, 69 people were rescued by Humanity1 rescue ship operated by NGO SOS Humanity from an overcrowded rubber boat. The Italian authorities assigned the remote Ravenna in northern Italy, more than 1,600 km away from the vessel’s position at the time of rescue, as a port of safety. SOS Humanity denounces the danger this represents for survivors who are exhausted, suffering from hypothermia, with some in absolute critical conditions. In a statement from 21 April, the NGO stressed that such a choice from the Italian authorities was far from a one-off incident. Indeed, rescue vessels of Mission Lifeline and Sea-Eye were also assigned distant ports in December 2022 and February 2023. SOS Humanity emphasises that, beyond the clear threats this represents for survivors, it also means that rescue boats will remain distant from the search and rescue zone, leaving other refugees drowning at sea. In the statement, SOS Humanity stipulates that the “systematic assignment of distant ports by the Italian authorities since December 2022 is not in compliance with international maritime law” which states that “a place of safety should be assigned ‘with minimum deviation from the ship’s voyage’ and that responsible Rescue Coordination Centres ‘shall arrange for such disembarkation to be effected as soon as reasonably practicable’”. It is in this context that SOS Humanity together with Mission Lifeline and Sea-Eye are deciding to take legal action at the Civil Court in Rome against the Italian authorities for their “systematic and illegitimate ‘distant port policy’”.

The far-right Italian government under Giorgia Meloni has cracked down on civilian search and rescue operators attempting to deliver on campaign promises to halt migration despite an increase of arrivals. As of 16 April, Italy had seen 33,553 arrivals by sea since the beginning of the year, according to the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR – a significant increase from previous years. The start of the debate over new proposed government measures under the so-called SAR or Cutro law decree – potentially removing or diminishing the rights to temporary protection – was delayed on 18 April due to amendments proposed by the opposition. It remains unclear whether the controversial measures will be implemented before the decree times out in May. Meanwhile, the recent declaration of a six months state of emergency on immigration on 11 April allowing the government to adopt derogations of the law in ‘emergency situations’ related to sea arrivals, has sparked critique. Sea-Watch International stated on 14 April that the state of emergency is not a response from the Italian government to deaths at sea. Instead, this state of emergency will allow authorities “to quickly turn away people who reach the Italian coast alive”. Reportedly, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) also raised critique and urged the government to focus on the dire situation on the island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants are currently residing in an overcrowded hotspot with a capacity of just 400 people. On 16 April, Valerio Valenti, current head of the Department for Civil Liberties and Immigration was appointed commissioner for the migration emergency. Valenti will manage an initial budget of 5 million Euro which could rise to up to 300 million for the expansion of the reception capacity including in hotspots in Italian regions except for Romagna, Tuscany, Campania and Puglia, that have not signed the agreement. Following the declaration of the state of emergency, the Italian government asked for EU funding to relocate migrants from the overcrowded island of Lampedusa to the Italian mainland. Budget Commissioner, Johannes Hahn recently stated that Lampedusa coasts were also EU coasts, noting that Italy was the principal recipient of European funding for migration. As such, he referred to ongoing discussions on a possible supplementary allocation. Further, Hahn called on EU Member States to show solidarity and accept more asylum seekers from Italy. A French-inspired voluntary EU relocation scheme aiming to ease arrival pressure following search and rescue operations has resulted in a little more than 300 relocations from Italy this year – all accepted by Germany.

Civil society organisations and rescue NGOs have released a joint statement to remind the EU and Member States like Italy supplying significant funding for migration cooperation that Tunisia is neither a safe country of origin nor a safe third country. “Given the Tunisian ongoing authoritarian state transformation and the extreme violence and persecution of the Black population in Tunisia, as well as of people on the move, political opponents and civil society actors, we urge authorities of the European Union and its member states to withdraw their migration control agreements with the Tunisian authorities”. According to the statement: “The number of interceptions and pullbacks by the Tunisian Coast Guard to Tunisia has increased enormously in recent years. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, 14,963 people were prevented from leaving Tunisia by sea and were violently towed back against their will on behalf of the EU”. Amid the ongoing crack-down on migrants in Tunisia, the situation for poor local residents is also increasingly dire. According to the Tunisia-based journalist, Sam Kimball: “The country’s police, who receive outsize amounts of funding from the European Union, United Kingdom, United States and other foreign entities to crack down on extremism and control illegal immigration, are in reality exacerbating the issues they’re funded to fix”. More than 16,000 Tunisian nationals reached Italy in 2022. Kimball describes why people leave: “Harassed and brutalized by police for petty infractions, branded by courts and prisons with administrative and social stigma, and blocked from a productive or prosperous future in Tunisia that is legal and secure, young men like Achref from working-class neighborhoods are pushed so far to the margins that many fall off the map altogether and migrate illegally to Europe”.

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