As the death toll on the central Mediterranean reaches its highest level since 2017, Germany is set to follow Italy in cracking down on NGO rescue operators. The European Commission seeks new partnerships in North Africa as interceptions and returns to severe abuse in the region continue.  

In a report published on 22 November Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) states: “With almost 2,200 children, women, and men reported missing or dead in the Central Mediterranean this year, 2023 has already earned the unenviable record of being the deadliest year on this migration route since 2017”. The organisation “denounces the violent border practices and deliberate inaction of European states that have led to more deaths at sea”. The report comes amid new deadly shipwrecks off Lampedusa. A two-year-old girl died and eight people are missing after a shipwreck on 21 November off the Italian island – according to Italian authorities, 43 people were rescued. On 22 November, Italian media reported another deadly shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa – A 26-year-old woman from Côte d’Ivoire drowned and 46 people were rescued from the sea. “At least 11 lives have been lost in the central Mediterranean in the past 72 hours as reports of shipwrecks and missing persons keep coming out”, SOS MEDITERRANEE stated on 23 November.

Meanwhile, the crack-down on civilian rescue operators continues. Sea-Eye recently filed a new lawsuit against Italy before the civil court of Vibo Valentia in Calabria in southern Italy over the detention of its rescue Sea-Eye 4 at the end of October. Reportedly, the vessel is now free and ready being prepared for its next mission. Ocean Viking operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE was also recently detained and fined by Italian authorities. A rescuer from the organisation stated in reference to the controversial Italian legislation imposed on civilian SAR operators: “It’s unacceptable to be detained for doing the right thing. For me this decree is unacceptable. I don’t know how long we will face again this fear of detention each time we rescue people”. According to SOS MEDITERRANEE, NGO rescue ships were detained 13 times by the Italian authorities. At the same time, Italian authorities continue to assign distant ports for the disembarkation of survivors rescued by civilian operators. On 18 November, MSF Sea reported: “Despite sharply deteriorating weather conditions and other closer ports available, the Italian authorities have assigned Ravenna as a place of safety to the Geo Barents, forcing the survivors and crew on board to endure more than 4 days of difficult sailing”. On 20 November, EMERGENCY NGO reported: “This morning, Life Support SAR rescued 21 people in distress in the Mediterranean, including one unaccompanied child. We will not reach the assigned POS, Marinadi Carrara, until Thursday. Weather conditions are deteriorating; we hope the authorities will assign us a closer port”. Moreover, twelve rescue organisations joined the Iuvena Crew’s lawsuit to demand an investigation to be opened in Trapani to determine who is responsible for the destruction of the rescue ship following its seizure in 2017.

Germany has seen a shift towards harsher migration and asylum policies and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has expressed interest in the controversial memorandum of understanding between Italy and Albania on the transfer of survivors rescued in the Mediterranean to the non-EU state. The agreement has been praised by Italian prime minister, Meloni as a model for Europe but its practical workability has been challenged and it has sparked severe critique. According to ECRE member, the Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) the agreement may be unconstitutional. “All types of international agreements constitute sources of international law, whose efficacy at the national level comes from the order of execution given through the ratification process which creates the international binding obligation of their internal implementation,” ASGI stated. On 21 November while speaking to the lower house, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said that Italy-Albania deal isn’t comparable to the UK’s Rwanda deal, adding that the way requests would be handled would fully protect refugees’ rights and in accordance with Italian and European law. Tajani also underlined that both of Italy’s houses of parliament will be given the chance to ratify the country’s new deal to process asylum seekers in Albania while hoping that the debates and ratification process will be “as quick as possible,” since the deal is meant to begin by spring 2024. On 22 November, in advance of a broad action plan between Italy and Germany including the ambition to “liaise” on migration, the German rescue operator Sea-Watch stated (translated): “Chancellor before you sign a German-Italian “action plan” today with Giorgia Meloni, it would be advisable to take a look at your coalition agreement. You have committed yourself to sea rescue. Defend international law, even when things get cozy with neo-fascists”. The German government has presented a new draft law targeting civilian rescuers. SOS Humanity has published a petition, stating: “We demand from the members of the Bundestag: The German Federal Ministry of the Interior has presented a draft law which, among other things, could penalise maritime rescue with up to 10 years in prison. The paragraph is embedded in further tightening of asylum law. This must not happen! The coalition government has already passed the law in the cabinet, but it still has to go through the Bundestag before it comes into force. We are calling on the parties of government to stop the law. Maritime rescue, and people fleeing across the Mediterranean, should be supported, not penalised! In a Joint statement published on 21 November, 52 organisations expressed alarm over (translated): “the planned amendments to the Residence Act, which the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community has submitted to the Federal Cabinet. The drafting aid for an amendment by the parliamentary groups of the SPD, Alliance 90/The Greens and FDP to the draft law to improve repatriation (Repatriation Improvement Act) provides the legal basis for further restricting humanitarian work and prosecuting humanitarian aid workers. This criminalization contradicts the duty to rescue at sea emphasized in the coalition agreement and the responsibility not to hinder it”.

Meanwhile, civilian rescue operators continue to save lives. On 20 November, RESQSHIP reported that its vessel Nadir: “found a steel boat with 49 people on board this morning. The freeboard was only a few centimetres and water was coming in through high waves. An immediate evacuation to the Nadir was necessary. The crew is now en route with the guests to the next safe harbour, Lampedusa”. The following day the organisation stated: “Last night all 49 people were disembarked safely in Lampedusa. Among them were 22 women, 6 children and 6 minors. They had survived at sea for over 4 days in rough weather, many had fuel burns and were in a very bad condition, but still showed great strength”. Also on 22 November, reported of two rescue operations by its vessel Aurora of 60 and 45 people respectively. Survivors later disembarked in Lampedusa. On the same day, the organisation released an X (formerly Twitter) thread describing a distress situation: “On Friday, together with MSF Sea, we rescued a boat in distress. However, Frontex spotted the people hours earlier without informing us or the rescue vessel Geo Barents. Unfortunately, Frontex not cooperating with sea rescue organizations is nothing new. The so-called Libyan coast guard also appeared at the scene – with coordinates received in advance, though the source remains unclear. All of this unfolded in the Maltese search and rescue zone, far from their actual area of responsibility”. According to the organisation: “Questions arise: Why does Frontex record distress cases without informing nearby rescue ships? Why is the so-called Libyan coast guard so quick to be on-site? Why are they operating in this zone at all? We demand answers!”.

On 16 November, Statewatch reported:The European Commission wants to agree “new anti-smuggling operational partnerships” with Tunisia and Egypt before the end of the year, despite longstanding reports of abuse against migrants and refugees in Egypt and recent racist violence endorsed by the Tunisian state. Material and financial support is already being stepped up to the two North African countries, along with support for Libya”. Between January and September 2023, MSF medical team carried out 3,660 consultations for survivors on Geo Barents. Beyond “health conditions directly related to the dangerous sea crossings, including fuel burns, fuel poisoning, hypothermia, and dehydration” many survivors “also experienced medical issues related to cramped and inhumane living conditions during their captivity in Libya, such as skin infections and untreated wounds. Moreover, 273 patients presented with serious violence-related traumas, including scars from gunshot wounds or violent beatings, unwanted pregnancies caused by sexual violence, and concerning levels of psychological distress, such as anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks”. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 15,000 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2023 so far. Interceptions and abuse also continue in Tunisia. on 20 November, Alarm Phone reported of “40 people in distress after interception by Tunisian coastguard! We were in contact with a group escaping Tunisia. They were intercepted by Tunisian forces & not told where they’d be brought to. We fear they will be forced into the desert to Algeria as many have before!”. The following day the NGO hotline reported: “Alarm Phone is in contact with a group that was intercepted by the Tunisian coastguard and afterwards deported to the desert at the border to Algeria. 3 pregnant women are among them. They need rescue and medical care urgently. Stop deportations into the desert!”.

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