An agreement between Italy and non-EU state Albania for the transfer of thousands of survivors from the Mediterranean for reception, evaluation and asylum processing sparks controversy. The myth of search and rescue as a pull factor has yet again been debunked in a recent study. Italy continues to crack-down on civilian rescue operators as death toll increases on the Mediterranean. Reportedly, despite diplomatic tension, departures from Tunisia are down since the controversial agreement with EU was signed.

A new agreement between Italy and non-EU state Albania – the first of its kind – could potentially allow thousands of people rescued in the Mediterranean to be transferred to centers in northwest Albania for reception, evaluation and asylum processing. POLITICO writes: “The centers would be under Italian legal jurisdiction, constructed at Italy’s expense, and are expected to open by spring 2024. Children, pregnant women and “vulnerable people” won’t be sent to the centres but will instead have their applications processed in Italy, Meloni said. Under the deal, the centers in northwest Albania will hold up to 36,000 people per year once established”. However, as EURACTIV points out: “the decision has sparked controversy in both countries, including complaints over a lack of political consensus and parliamentary vote, with the EU warning it must respect national and international law. Human rights issues and risks over inadequate oversight have also been raised, considering similar deals with other countries have been rejected or challenged in court”.

The NGO rescue operator, SOS Humanity, quotes one of the authors behind a recent study by the University of Potsdam, the Hertie School and the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), Julian Wucherpfenning stating: “There is no systematic empirical evidence that migration movements are influenced by maritime rescue,” adding: “Rather, our results suggest that other factors such as violence, poverty, political instability and commodity prices are decisive for migration movements”. The study that investigates the ‘pull factor’ claim – the hypothesis that state and private-led search and rescue “foster irregular migration (and thereby migrant fatalities) by altering the decision calculus associated with the journey” further concludes: “Importantly, search-and-rescue is not associated with a higher estimated mortality rate; if anything this rate is lower under search-and-rescue. By contrast, the absence of search-and-rescue and the start of coordinated pushbacks are associated with a higher estimated mortality rate”. According to Statewatch, “EU mulls intelligence-gathering obligations for search and rescue operations. The organisation states: “The document (pdf) was produced “for an exchange of views on the type of information that shipmasters may exchange with rescued people following SAR incidents,” by officials within the Migration Management Response unit of the Commisson’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME)”. The note suggests that ships engaged in SAR operations should gather various types of information including: “Information about the crew of the vessel and their actions prior to the distress event”; “If applicable, accounts on the involvement of smugglers/traffickers and their actions prior to and during the journey”; “If applicable, any potential encounters with other entities during the journey, and whether they contributed to the distress situation”; “Whether the persons on board possess relevant identification and travel documents that may be relevant upon disembarkation”; “Whether the person plans to apply for asylum in the country where he/she will be disembarked”. Alberto Mallardo of the search and rescue organisation Sea-Watch told Statewatch that requirements to gather this kind of information may lead to rescue missions increasingly being forced to act as policing operations: “We consider it crucial to acknowledge that civil assets used in sea rescue operations should not be tasked with any law enforcement duty. This should only be carried out once the safety of the rescued individuals has been ensured, specifically after completing the rescue operation and disembarking the shipwreck individuals at a designated place of safety (POS). Therefore, expecting our team to be directly involved in collecting evidence for investigative purposes would deviate from our main mission. Our main focus should be on efficiently and effectively fulfilling our objective of searching for and rescuing people at sea and bringing them to safety”.

Meanwhile, the ongoing crack-down by Italian authorities on NGO rescue operators continues. On October 13, defendants in the highly controversial Iuventa trial had the possibility to address the court in Trapani. Iuventa crew members stand accused of aiding unauthorized entry punishable by up to 20 years. “Their voices, memories and arguments became part of the proceedings for the first time since the investigation against them began seven years ago,” Iuventa stated. Dariush, one of the defendants pointed to key procedural issues, stating: “We have never been given a translation of our files. It is the right of every defendant in a trial in Italy to be able to read their investigation file. In a language he understands. Not just a summary like the one we were given. How can anyone not think that it is important for defendants to know the contents of the files that led to their trial? I am surprised that knowing 3% of the files should be enough for me”. Dariush further points out: “I came to Trapani three times to give my testimony. All three attempts failed. Neither the police nor the public prosecutor’s office were able to provide a sufficiently competent translator to the appointments”. Another defendant, Sascha – a paramedic by profession – pointed to the selective use of witnesses by the public prosecutor: “Instead of questioning these individuals and authorities and using their statements to verify the accusations made, the public prosecutor’s office relies on the accounts of individuals whose backgrounds and motivations are highly questionable and, in my opinion, to a large extent misanthropic, as their known connections to right-wing radical organisations and attitudes make clear. This leads me to question the intentions of the public prosecutor’s office and to what extent political motives guided this investigation”. According to Iuventa “It is expected that in early 2024 the judge in Trapani will decide whether the case will be dropped or continue in a trial that could last for further years”. For the third time, Italian authorities have imposed a fine and a 20-day administrative detention on the rescue vessel Sea-Eye 4 operated by Sea-Eye. The detention follows a dramatic rescue operation during which the organisation had been harassed and threatened by the so-called Libyan coastguard: “so much that people tried to escape in panic. Several fell into the water and have been missing ever since. The crew later discovered 4 bodies in the boat”. Reportedly, a pregnant woman was left fighting for her life as both Italian and Libyan authorities ignored numerous calls for a medical emergency evacuation with doctors onboard Sea-Eye 4 unable to detect the heartbeat of her unborn child, leaving both her and the baby in a life-threatening situation. The unborn child was lost. On 30 October, Sea-Eye announced that 48 survivors and four dead bodies had reached Vibo Valentia. According to SOS Humanity, civilian rescue vessels have been detained for a total of 230 days. On 3 November, Mediterranea Saving Humans “Presented to the judges of Trapani the appeal against the illegal administrative detention of the ship MARE JONIO”. The organisation states: “The motivations for the measures affecting the MARE JONIO are shown to be totally “illegitimate” in the appeal presented to the judges in Trapani: the Captain and shipowner are accused of ‘not having informed’ the Libyan coordination centre and, above all, of not having asked Libya for a port of disembarkation” adding: “the appeal insists that “Libya cannot be considered a safe place to land shipwrecked persons and its authorities cannot therefore be considered legitimate interlocutors when it is necessary to receive instructions regarding the landing of shipwrecked persons”.

However, NGOs remain active in the central Mediterranean where more than 2,100 lives had been lost in 2023 as of 28 October. On 29 October, Maydayterraneo announced the rescue of 112 in the central Mediterranean by its vessel Aita Mari. The following day, Sea-Watch International reported: “Saturday night, our rescue ship Aurora found a boat in distress with 57 people on board that had been at sea for 2 days already. We handed out life jackets & water until 3 hours later, a Guardia di Finanza ship arrived, took the people on board & brought them to Lampedusa”. On 3 November, SOS MEDITERRANEE  stated: “Yesterday, while underway from Ravenna to Syracuse, the Italian MRCC instructed Ocean Viking to assist a boat in distress in the Ionian Sea. During the night, the team rescued 75 men, women & children from a sailing boat that departed from Izmir, Turkey”. On 4 November, MSF Sea reported: Yesterday evening, MSF team rescued 29 men and one unaccompanied minor from a fiberglass boat in distress in the Libyan SAR zone. The Geo Barents is now heading to Bari, the place of safety assigned by the Italian authorities. Sea-Watch International reported on 6 November: ”In the early hours, we rescued 56 people in distress & brought them safely on board our rescue ship Aurora. One person is receiving medical care for severe dehydration. Despite tough weather conditions, we were assigned the port of Pozzallo, ~330km from our location”. Moreover, the ongoing cycle of death and distress continues in the Mediterranean. The bodies of the five men were recovered on 28 October from a beach in Sicily close to the city of Trapani. Reportedly, another 20 people remain missing and 35 survived when an unseaworthy fishing boat overturned after departing Tunisia. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone has reported a series of distress cases including 400 people on 1 November later rescued to Italy, 20 people adrift in the Maltese SAR zone on 29 October, another 68 people on the same day later intercepted and returned to Tunisia, and 30 people of Zuwara on 25 October later returned to Libya.

In a press conference at the Anti-Illegal Immigration Authority in Tripoli, Libyan Interior Minister Emad Al-Trabelsi emphasized the “financial burden” Libya faces as a result of providing shelter and assistance to immigrant while referring to joint efforts made to “combat immigration”. Commenting to Al Trabelsi statement on the high cost of shelter, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR official for the Western and Central Mediterranean region said: “Well alternatives to arbitrary detention exist. They are cheaper & prevent human rights abuses. Let’s work on them”. The interior minister also assured that deportation flights would continue in a systematic manner to demonstrate “the seriousness and improvement in addressing immigration at local, regional, and international levels” while repeating commitment to take strong action against smugglers. Meanwhile, more than 13,000 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2023 so far, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Despite the controversy and diplomatic disputes over the EU Tunisia agreement on migration, it has reportedly had an effect. According to an article originally published in the German outlet Migazin: “Since the signing of the migration agreement, the departures of boats with refugees from Tunisia have decreased by a factor of 7”. The article points to increased frequency of patrols by the Tunisian coast guard that intercepted 1,351 people in August alone and state repression such as desert expulsions to Libya and Algerian borders as the most obvious factors.

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