Prior to the Council agreement on a regulation on crisis situations, including instrumentalisation of migration, and force majeure in the field of migration and asylum, nine southern member states urged support to “front-line” countries and increased surveillance along EU borders. The Greek PM praised own deterrence policies and Italy attempted to broaden scope of Instrumentalization to include civilian rescuers. Italy announces new controversial decree as measures from September faces headwind in court. Malta remains non-responsive and obstructs rescue operations as NGO operators continue to save lives.

On 4 October the European Council announced: “Today, EU member states’ representatives reached an agreement on the final component of a common European asylum and migration policy. At a meeting of the Council’s permanent representatives committee, member states sealed their negotiating mandate on a regulation on crisis situations, including instrumentalisation of migration, and force majeure in the field of migration and asylum. This position will form the basis of negotiations between the Council presidency and the European Parliament”. The agreement was reached through qualified majority with Hungary and Poland vetoing and Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia abstaining. Prior to the agreement the leaders of nine southern EU member states – Malta, France, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia and Croatia (the two latter included in the so-called Med Group in 2021) – met in Valetta to send a “clear message” during ongoing negotiations on the European Pact on Migration and Asylum. A joint statement released during the one-day meeting, also attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, emphasized the need for support for “front-line” countries as well as for increased surveillance operations at EU’s external borders to prevent departures. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, PM in Greece – where evidence of systematic pushbacks has been mounting for years – pointed to the country’s active deterrence policy at its land and sea borders, noting the considerable effort and resources invested to implement the policy. EU countries “need to determine on our own terms who enters” the 27-nation bloc, Mitsotakis said. Reportedly, Italy was seeking to broaden the definition of “instrumentalisation”, that potentially would allow member states to derogate from EU asylum rules under the pact and include humanitarian operations such as rescues at sea. Italy has criticised the German government over its provision of state funding to civilian search and rescue operators and the two countries have been in a diplomatic spat over the issue postponing the agreement but the scope of instrumentalisation was not widened to include humanitarian operations in the final wording on the position reached by qualified majority in the council on 4 October. However, reportedly included a more symbolic change of the wording on NGO rescue operators. MEP, Damian Boeselager commented in the afternoon of 4 October: “In today’s Ambassador meeting in BXL, clashes between Italy versus Germany centered around whether NGO support in SAR operations constitutes crisis. They agreed on a mixed bag in a recital”. The post on the social media formerly known as Twitter included a snapshot of the following adopted text: “Humanitarian aid operations should not be considered as instrumentalisation of migrants when there is no aim to destablise the Union or a Member State”. ECRE Director, Catherine Woollard summarized this compromise in this week’s editorial: “Minor concessions were made to Italy, however, as with Italy’s last-minute antics that delayed the June agreements, it was largely posturing to a domestic audience – perhaps to mask the fact that it has just agreed to a set of proposals that are not in its national interest, for reasons that remain obscure”.

The issuing of controversial decrees continues in Italy in the face of increased arrivals. On 27 September, the government approved a security decree imposing stricter age determination of youth declaring they are unaccompanied children and measures to increase their expulsions. PM Giorgia Meloni said about the two elements of the new decree: “we are making expulsions of dangerous irregular immigrants faster,” and that the new rules would make “it impossible to lie about their real age”. Further, Interior Minister, Matteo Piantedosi denied that Italy would be ignoring safeguards protecting children by introducing the decree that “simply provides for the prefect to order a temporary stay, for a period not exceeding 90 days, in an ordinary center [designed for adults]” for minors aged 16 and over, and only when arrivals exceeds capacity of facilities designed to host minors. Meanwhile, another decree announced on 22 September and completing the so-called “Cutro decree” is facing headwind. The new measure allows migrants, from countries considered “safe” by the Ministry of the Interior and accordingly unlikely to obtain protection, to deposit a bail of 5,000 euros to avoid waiting in detention for the examination of their asylum application. A first-instance Catania court has released a Tunisian national on the grounds that his detention under the decree violated EU law. According to the ruling, the measure regarding the 5,000 euros deposit would be incompatible with articles 8 and 9 of the recast Reception Conditions Directive, that regulate detention of asylum seekers. PM Meloni declared that she was “astonished” by the ruling, which, “on incredible grounds… freed an illegal immigrant who had already received a deportation order”. Extending the scope of the judgement, the PM claimed that the court had “unilaterally” declared Tunisia an unsafe country “going against the measures of a democratically elected government”. According to the PM: “It is not the first time this has happened but we will continue to defend the borders (of Italy)”.

On 3 October 2023, ten years after 368 people died in a shipwreck off Lampedusa sparking strong reactions from EU and Italian officials under the refrain “never again”, the cycle of death continues in the Mediterranean. “The tens of thousands of people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in less than 10 years, including at least 2,356 people this year alone, are a clear demonstration that a European member state-led search and rescue effort is not only necessary, but urgent”, stated Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović in a roundtable commemorating the tragedy called on European countries to prevent further deaths at sea, establish EU search and rescue operation, commit to their international obligations and establish a regional database to track lives lost for families looking for closure. According to IOMs Missing Migrants Project 28,106 people have died or gone missing on the Mediterranean since 2014. SOS Humanity, stated on 4 October: “On average, one person dies every 3 hours while fleeing across the central Mediterranean Sea!”.

Meanwhile, distress and rescue operations are ongoing. On 30 September, 177 people – half of them migrants – were evacuated from a vessel carrying them from Lampedusa to Sicily that caught fire. On 1 October, Open Arms reported: “Medical evacuation of a woman in serious health conditions, accompanied by her husband, has been completed in Lampedusa”. The rescue operator further stated: “We are now sailing towards the assigned port of Genova, where we will arrive in the late hours of Wednesday. We will face these long days of navigation dedicated to the care and attention of the 176 people on board. Let’s not forget that they all need to disembark and receive necessary care as soon as possible”. The organisation confirmed the disembarkation of the remaining 176 survivors on 4 October but the following day stated: New 20-day administrative blockade and fine of up to €10,000 for the Open Arms. After more than 6 hours of interrogation of our Captain and our SAR Coordinator, the Italian authorities seize our boat again. The crime? Having saved 176 lives in danger in 3 rescue operations in international waters in the central Mediterranean”. On 4 October, MSF Sea confirmed the disembarkation in Civitavecchia of 61 survivors rescued by Geo Barents. RESQSHIP reported the rescue of 22 people by its vessel Nadir on 29 September including eight children. As the rescue operator sailed towards Lampedusa the “nearest port of safety” Italian authorities initially assigned Porto Empedocle at a distance of “115 nm” but survivors were allowed disembarkation in Lampedusa due to bad weather on 1 October. The rescue operator reported again on 3 October: “The plight of people fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea remains unchanged: Nadir attended to 125 people in distress in 3 operations today, in cooperation with Pilotes Volontaires. All people were taken over by ships of the Italian authorities after first assistance by our crew”. On 5 October, RESQSHIP reported: “Yesterday evening, the Nadir encountered a wooden boat with 45 people on board. Our crew provided first aid and accompanied the people to the Italian SAR region, where the Italian authorities took them on board”. Louise Michel stated on 3 October: “Frontex is harassing people before they get basic medical treatment! During the disembarkation of the 58 survivors in Pozzallo, we witnessed Frontex agents interrogating people, including children, while being treated in an ambulance before their transport to the hospital”. The organisation completed another two rescues by 4 October and the Louise Michel vessel is carrying 83 survivors. Elon Musk entered the debate over SAR on the platform formerly known as Twitter when – in reaction to complaints from far-right source about eight German civilian rescue operators being subsidized by the government – the Business magnate and investor asked: “Is the German public aware of this?”. The German Foreign Office replied simply: “Yes. And it’s called saving lives”.

Malta continues non-response tactics and facilitation of pushbacks to Libya. On 1 October, Alarm Phone reported of 44 people in distress in the Maltese SAR zone drifting without water and food and by 3 October the NGO hotline had lost contact with the group without response by Maltese authorities. Sea-Watch International reported on 2 October: “Yesterday, our Seabird crew spotted two boats in distress. Presumably, both are still out at sea. Close-by merchant vessels seemed eager to rescue. But the Maltese Rescue Coordination Center was hindering them and advised the vessels to not take any advice from Seabird”. Later, the organisation stated: “our Seabird found one of the boats again, freshly equipped with life vests. We assume the close by Maltese patrol boat to be also responsible for supplying the people with fuel instead of rescuing them. A severe breach of their duty to rescue!”. On 4 October Sea-Watch International stated: ”While one of the two boats most likely made it to Malta, we still have no traces of the other boat. People were panicking, abandoned in the middle of the ocean, and in need of rescue!”. According to the Asylum Information Database AIDA, managed by ECRE, Malta failed to rescue 7,459 people in distress in 2022 alone and was accused of involvement in 14 pushbacks involving a total of 789 people. Deflecting a question from media on whether he was comfortable with the situation in Malta following NGO claims of migrant boats being sent back to Libya, Charles Michel pointed to the role of NGOs. “I feel that we must address all the questions, including the difficult questions. And to be honest with you, I feel there is a growing debate about the role played by some of the NGOs,” the top EU official stated, adding that it is “not a secret… that some NGO boats are acting in a way that, in my opinion, is opening some questions”.

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