Lack of alternatives and economic crisis are driving attempts to cross the Eastern Mediterranean where more than 100 lives were lost in the latest tragedy. Civilian rescue operators continue to save lives in the face of non-response tactics, delays of disembarkation of survivors and crack-down by authorities. Italian elections have secured a majority for a potential far-right government coalition with a harsh anti-migration agenda.

According to Euromed Rights, “a series of tragic incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean” over the past weeks must be seen in the context of “the systemic violence, pushbacks and dangers encountered on other routes and the lack of legal channels for migration”. Further, the Arab News points to push-factors driving attempts to cross as “Syrian refugees have become something of a convenient scapegoat to draw blame away from the nation’s embattled political elite” in Lebanon, currently facing a deepening socio-economic crisis. The death count following the latest tragedy on the route has passed 100 and 40 people remain missing. The incident happened off the Syrian coast when a boat carrying Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians departing from Lebanon capsized. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi called for “full solidarity from the international community to help improve the conditions of forcibly displaced people and host communities in the Middle East, particularly in countries neighbouring Syria,” stating: “Too many people are being pushed to the brink”. Director General for the International Organization for Migration, António Vitorino declared that those simply looking for safety “should not be compelled to take such perilous and often deadly migration journeys,” noting “We must work together to increase safe and legal pathways to regular migration to help reduce loss of life and protect vulnerable people on the move”. Meanwhile, incidents continue across the Mediterranean with the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reporting of 20 people missing after a shipwreck on 23 September off Tunisia. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 1,209 people died or went missing across the Mediterranean in 2022 as of 25 September.

On 22 September, Alarm Phone reported of a group in distress in the Ionian Sea after departing Lebanon. Reportedly, the group was rescued by cargo vessels and taken to Greece. However, civilian rescue operators continue to take the main responsibility for saving human lives in the Mediterranean. On 20 September the Nadir vessel operated by RESQSHIP saved 30 people including a child from a boat taking in water – the group was taken to Lampedusa. Assisted by the Sea-Watch airplane, Seabird 2 the Nadir vessel saved another 75 people on 21 September from two boats in distress – the Italian Coast Guard arrived only after “many hours” to pick up survivors. Delays and non-response remain the norm from authorities in Mediterranean member states, and on 20 September MSF Sea rescued 76 people from an overcrowded rubber boat off Libya “in the dead of night” after Italian and Maltese authorities remained unresponsive to distress alerts. On 23 September, Alarm Phone reported of authorities ignoring 23 people at risk in the Maltese SAR zone under deteriorating weather conditions. MSF Sea attempted to reach the group but reported: “The weather conditions in the Central Med make it impossible for the Geo Barents to reach the reported boat in distress with 23 people in the Maltese search and rescue zone. The boat is too far away, and we cannot risk endangering the survivors on board as well as our crew”. The organisation urged the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) to conduct a rescue. On 24 September, Sea Watch defined Maltese authorities’ lack of response to a boat in distress in the country’s SAR zone – despite having a helicopter in the area – as a “part of the Maltese authorities’ blatant indifference” noting the incident “marks another low point in this inhumane policy, which is unparalleled in its cynicism”. Maltese tactics of non-response were again on full display on 29 September when Alarm Phone reported of 33 people in distress in the Maltese SAR zone. On 30 September the NGO hotline stated: ”We just spoke to the ~33 people in distress again. They report of high waves and request urgent assistance. They are at the SAR boundary between Malta and Italy. Malta has failed once more to render assistance. We call on the authorities to launch a rescue operation now!”

Delays of disembarkation for survivors aboard civilian rescue ships continue. On 20 September, 14 days after its first rescue and seven days after its last, the Humanity 1 operated by SOS Humanity was assigned a safe port in Taranto Italy for the remaining 398 survivors aboard. Survivors finally disembarked on 22 September and SOS Humanity stated: “The precarious situation on the Humanity 1, which lasted for days, could have been avoided if the authorities had immediately assigned a place of safety for the survivors after the rescues, as required by maritime law”. On 22 September, Open Arms Uno operated by Open Arms began disembarkation of 402 survivors including more than 60 children in Messina, Italy after an extensive wait at sea. The vessel also carried the corpse of a 20-year-old Eritrean allegedly killed by a human smuggler and the organisation stated he would be given a worthy burial. 76 survivors including 18 unaccompanied children remained aboard the Geo Barents vessel operated by MSF Sea for eight days before being allowed to disembark in the port of Taranto.

In the latest example of the crack-down on civilian rescue operators, Sea-watch International’s vessel Sea-Watch 3 has been blocked by Italian authorities. The organisation’s “response” is the Sea-Watch 5 which is “Faster. Bigger. More efficient”. According to Sea-Watch: “With a new rescue ship – the Sea‑Watch 5 – we will write a new chapter of solidarity with people on the move. But not Sea‑Watch, we – the civil society – send this ship to the deadliest border in the world. All of us who, even today, do not simply abandon people fleeing to their fate. All of us who want to change something and do not give up hope for a colorful and open Europe”.

Meanwhile, elections in Italy on 25 September have secured a majority for a potential far-right coalition with a harsh anti-migration agenda consisting of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Former Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the interior, Salvini who has faced several trials related to his anti-migration and NGO policies promised to “stop NGO ships” in the run-up to the election. According to Are You Syrious: “more and more questions are piling up regarding how this will affect the migration policies of the country, but also those of the EU given that Italy, as one of the first entry countries, has an important say in everything concerning the topic at the highest level, consequently affecting everyone in the EU”. One of the proposals in pipeline from Brothers of Italy is a European military mission, carried out in agreement with the Libyan authorities to stop arrivals to Italy. However, according to Luca Masera, a professor at University of Bresvia and representative of ECRE member ASGI. “The question of sending military ships is not a possibility I would consider real”. As pointed out by the EU Observer: “Government authorities are obliged to abide by international human rights law, even if people are intercepted at high seas”. Already in 2012 the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for having intercepted 200 people at sea and returned them to Libya.

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