Southern Europe and North Africa have seen a wave of attacks and scapegoating of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees including in Tunisia and Greece as well as Italy and Cyprus. As the number of dead and missing people in the Mediterranean in 2023 surpasses the numbers for the previous four years, the civil fleet defies crackdown and continues to save lives.

Cyprus police had arrested 21 people in connection to racially motivated attacks by locals by 29 August who were vandalizing property of foreign residents – following the eviction of Syrians near the resort city of Paphos by authorities. A second wave of violence over the first weekend of September left five people injured and led to another 20 arrests after a march against migrants and refugees that turned violent in Limassol. According to ECRE member, Are You Syrious (AYS): “Shops were vandalised and street furniture was set on fire after approximately 500 people gathered in a park in the second city of Limassol. 13 people were arrested at the anti-migrant protest, 12 for having attacked people who didn’t look Greek-Cypriot during the protest and the 13th for allegedly organising the event. The local outlet Cyprus Mail reported of: “rampant extremism that had no qualms about destroying everything in sight, and a shocking failure from police to keep the situation under control” adding “that no one died during the violence was nothing short of a miracle and describe thugs targeted “anyone with the ‘wrong’ skin colour”. Doros Polycarpou, executive director of the Cypriot anti-racism NGO KISA, stated: “We had a government that for ten years (was using) rhetoric that more or less portrayed these people as a real national and ethnic and demographic security threat,” adding: “They used the narrative, they created the framework, the demands from the society, but they couldn’t deliver the necessary action”. Even on the left, the migration “issue” is approached from the starting point of a problem to be “tackled”. On 5 September, EDEK, the Socialist Party of Cyprus, put out a statement, reading (translated): “The migration issue is not tackled with slogans, but with feasible proposals. In order to drastically reduce the problem, we recommend that: Illegal economic migrants, who do not come from war zones and who travel with travel documents from their country, through a third country, which is mainly Turkey, but when they enter illegally the territories controlled by the Republic of Cyprus, have allegedly lost their travel documents, must be confined, provided with food and housing, but not benefits, and swiftly examined in the process of repatriation, but not apply for asylum. In a statement released on 6 September by Amnesty International and PICUM, Amnesty’s Migration Researcher, Adriana Tidona states: “Authorities in Cyprus must launch an urgent investigation into the attacks in Chloraka and Limassol as well as into the police response to them and take decisive action to prevent any future violence as well as to protect racialized people”. Michele Levoy, Director of PICUM, said “NGOs working for equality and migrants’ rights have faced an extremely challenging context for many years. It is no surprise that physical violence and attacks are now playing out in a context in which negative narratives about migrants have been constant”.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination published on 31 August its findings on Italy, warning of increasing levels of hate speech against migrants and minorities, including in the political debate and sports. Further, the “Committee was disturbed by the recent legislation, particularly the Law on Immigration and Security in 2018 and the “Cutro Law” in 2023, which made migrants, asylum seekers and refugees more vulnerable to human rights violations, especially violations of their rights to life and security. The Committee also expressed concern at the legal restrictions that have been put on search and rescue at sea operations, which may prevent organisations from rescuing migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It urged Italy to take all necessary measures to combat discrimination against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees and protect their right to life, security and physical integrity. Italy was also asked to guarantee that migrants and asylum seekers can apply for international protection and access to refugee status determination procedures”.

The controversy around the multi-million EU deal with the Tunisian regime – notorious for its violent crack-down and deadly desert deportations of migrants – continues. When confronted with questions over Tunisia’s dubious human rights record after a recent visit to discuss migration issues with President Saied and senior Tunisian ministers, Manfred Weber president of the right-leaning EP group, European People’s Party (EPP) remained abstract on Tunisia’s violations but was concrete on migration prevention: “Our approach is clear. We have to respect human rights. We have to respect the human dignity of every migrant. But on the other hand, we have to fight against illegal migration”. Weber added: “For me, it’s clear we have to protect our borders. And if we need for this all the technical measures like we did it on the Turkish-Greek border, then it’s needed”. Meanwhile, four Tunisians have been arrested on suspicion of piracy after money and engine were stolen from a vessel carrying migrants to Italy. According to InfoMigrants: “The practice of robbing boats carrying sub-Saharan Africans in the Mediterranean is becoming more common”. The outlet writes:According to Italian investigators, almost half of the vessels carrying migrants that are rescued at sea are found without their engine. The Italian news agency ANSA said investigations revealed that some Tunisians previously working as fishing crew had turned to piracy as it was more lucrative”. Footage showing helicopters “brutally terrorizing” refugees in the Tunisian desert has been shared on social media. Operations by Tunisia’s national guard to detain hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans has reportedly been ongoing over the past weeks. Giorgia Linardi, spokesperson for Sea Watch Italy, was heard at the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, where she denounced “the policies of criminalizing solidarity and externalizing the borders of Italy and the EU”. According to the organisation during the last mission of its Aurora vessel the crew was requested “to coordinate with Tunisia to bring rescued shipwrecked people there: an attempt to legitimize the EU-Tunisia agreement by compensating for its political weakness by instituting dangerous practices at sea”.

The doubtful and controversial accusations against three youths in Malta – just 15, 16 and 19 years old in 2019 at the time of the alleged crime of hijacking the El Hiblu 1 vessel to prevent the return of themselves and a total of 108 survivors to Libya – has again been denounced. While a decision by the Attorney General on whether or not to indict the youths dubbed the ‘El Hiblu three’ on charges that include terrorist offences is still pending, they have already served 8-months of imprisonment before making bail in November 2019 and have been facing restrictions since. The El Hiblu 3 Freedom Commission, an independent alliance of human rights advocates stated recently: The accusations are grossly unfair and traumatising for those concerned, with several carrying life sentences. The agonising ordeal is made worse by over four years of dehumanising restrictions that the three young men have to endure, such as staying 50 metres away from the shore”.

On 1 September, SOS Mediterranee put out a brief pointing to the worsening situation on the Central Mediterranean route, referring how: “more than 2,000 people have died since the beginning of the year in the Central Mediterranean. The number of people declared dead or missing in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2023 is already higher than in the previous four years”. Meanwhile, the civilian search and rescue operators continue to save lives despite the crack-down and regular detention of their vessels by the Italian authorities. A series of rescues have been reported over the last week. Louise Michel reported the rescue of 24 people on 4 September and 44 the following day. On 4 September, MSF Sea rescued 31 people, and RESQSHIP’s Nadir vessel escorted several boats with more than one hundred people in distress. On 7 September, SOS Humanity reported the conclusion of a mission involving “3 rescue operations, 163 survivors, 2 distant ports”.  Further, the NGO Hotline, Alarm Phone reported on 6 September of the non-response by Maltese authorities to 16 people in distress in the country’s SAR zone – the group was later forced back to Libya.

Meanwhile, Sea-Watch International reported on 5 September: “One of the two Frontex drones crashed in the Mediterranean. It has been operated by Airbus since 2022, stationary in Kreta, and costing €50 million for a paltry 3000 flight hours. For that money, our aircrafts Seabird 1&2 could be operational for over 25 years”.

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