Despite an increased number of deaths in the Mediterranean in 2023, people continue to reach Italy. Former Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, takes the stand in the Open Arms trial over accusations of kidnapping migrants and failure to fulfil his duties in 2019. An Albanian court is preparing to rule on the “dangerous” Italian attempt to use Albanian territory for reception centres for people seeking to enter the EU by sea. The bomb attack against the Cypriot NGO KISA represents a “direct assault” on EU principles and values.

The number of irregular border crossings at the EU’s external border in 2023 reached approximately 380,000, driven by a rise in arrivals via the Mediterranean region, according to preliminary calculations by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). 41% of the total crossings to Europe were made through the central Mediterranean route, the agency noted, making this migratory route the most active in Europe. More than 60,000 women, men and children crossed the central Mediterranean route in 2023, an increase of 55% compared to 2022. At least 2013 people died in the Central Mediterranean trying to cross the sea to reach Europe in 2023, according to the International Organization for Migration, which noted that “The figure is likely under-representative of the true number”. Despite this, crossing attempts as well as deaths continue. “2024 begins as 2023 ends”, Sea-Watch International wrote on X, underlining that “European borders killed 108 people” between 26 December and 3 January. On 3 January, the Geo Barents rescue vessel rescued 336 migrants, including 27 unaccompanied minors and a pregnant woman. The disembarkation procedure was the the largest of its kind ever recorded in in the Emilia-Romagna region and the government assigned a distant port for disembarkation. Consequently, the regional welfare councillor, Igor Taruffi, said: “I find the government’s decision to continue to designate Ravenna as a port for disembarking migrants incomprehensible,” adding that the time they spend at sea “is lengthened for those already suffering and in need of help.” On 11 January, the crew of the Sea-Watch International rescue vessel again documented the so-called Libyan coast guard intercepting and towing back an overcrowded boat carrying around 85 people using a “ship donated by Italy”. “Human rights violations under the eyes of Frontex, sponsored by Europe”, the organisation added. On 12 January, in a joint operation, Frontex and the Italian coastguard searched for a wooden boat carrying 40 people. The Italian coastguard sent multiple messages to ships transiting the area to keep a “sharp look-out” for the boat. Hotline Alarm Phone tweeted on 13 January: “Several days later there are no news about the missing people who escaped from #Libya in a wooden boat. Frontex and Italian Coastguard were searching for the boat in vain. Worried relatives are calling us and urgently need answers!”. The search operation continued until 15 January, the day when Sea-Watch International tweeted: “No one knows where they are”, adding that their crew saw the overcrowded boat in high waves on 11 January. “For days, we have been wondering, are they still alive?”, the organisation added, underlining “Every hour that passes weakens the hope of finding alive the 40 people missing at sea for days. A search and rescue mission would be a European duty, but instead even civil society ships are kept away from that black hole that is the central Mediterranean”. Also on 15 January, the Geo Barents disembarked 37 survivors after three days of navigation. Open Arms announced on 17 January that its rescue vessel had started sailing towards the Central Mediterranean, “the largest mass grave on the planet”. A day later, it stated that it has rescued 57 people including five minors in rough conditions in the Mediterranean. On the same day, SOS Humanity rescued 126 people in distress at sea from a completely overcrowded, unseaworthy wooden boat in international waters.

On 12 January, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party and former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, took the stand in Palermo in his trial for kidnapping and having denied disembarkation to 147 migrants rescued at sea in August 2019 by a rescue vessel belonging to the Spanish NGO Open Arms. Salvini stated that he was “proud” of his decisions on migration as “no migrant tragedies occurred” during his mandate “unlike what happened afterwards”. He also claimed that his actions were in the interest of “national security” explaining that “there were risks of terrorism then. So special attention to irregular immigration was a just objective”. Open Arms’ founder Oscar Camps still expects “justice to be done and that Matteo Salvini answer for the consequences of his actions, since they were personal.” Meanwhile, the appeals court in Reggio Calabria, southern Italy, has granted a 90-day extension for the publication of the motivation behind its decision to overturn the conviction of former mayor Mimmo Lucano, known for welcoming migrants and refugees, and inclusion efforts, and who is accused of “irregularities in his management of asylum seekers in the town of Riace”. The decision behind the extension was taken due to the “uncommon complexity and sensitivity of the facts” at the centre of the case.

The Albanian-Italian agreement is back on the agenda as an Albanian court is about to rule on whether a deal with Italy’s far-right government would violate the constitution by allowing Albanian territory to be used for reception centres for people seeking to enter the EU by sea. While Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who once said Italy should repatriate migrants and then “sink the boats that rescued them”, has argued that the plan is necessary in order to reduce arrivals by sea to Italy, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, described the deal as “dangerous”. “The shifting of responsibility across borders by some states also incentivises others to do the same, which risks creating a domino effect that could undermine the European and global system of international protection”, she added. Moreover, Aid workers say the agreement could mark a “turning point in the history of the migration crisis” and the culmination of a policy of “repression” that the European Union has been pursuing for years.

The human rights organisation KISA, which is based in Nicosia and works on topics including migration and anti-racism, was the target of a bomb attack on 5 January. The attack resulted in the complete destruction of the office’s computers, photocopiers, archives, and windows. KISA said that the culprits had not been identified, adding that the attack should not come as a “surprise” to authorities as the organisation has long been a target of smear campaigns, harassment and attacks by ultra-nationalist, far-right and anti-migrant groups for its human rights work. The organisation also blamed the state for the attack because “authorities” used all administrative and police measures at their disposal to create the conditions for the attack and to silence KISA”. Amnesty International described the attack as  “Despicable” and indicative of a rise in racist violence. “This attack represents a direct assault on the principles of justice, equality, and non-discrimination upon which the EU is built,” stated Kim Smouter, Executive Director of the European Network Against Racism. “It is emblematic of a hostile political environment that perpetuates biased and divisive narratives against marginalised groups and those providing them assistance”, he added.

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