Asylum seekers in Italy report prison-like conditions in reception centres amid increased arrivals as well as rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, where 40 people are missing following another deadly shipwreck. 418 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya in the period of 18 – 24 June 2023 as abuses in the country continue. Rescue organisation, Sea-Watch, exposes again the “criminal behavior” of Maltese authorities known for its non-response and delayed rescue tactics.

The number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy increased this year, according to EU officials. More than 56,000 people have made the journey – almost double the total over the same period last year. The Italian government has responded with a crack-down on rescue organisations and the strengthening of cooperation with Tunisia – a country increasingly unsafe for people on the move – instead of improving  its own reception system. “The result is a mechanism in constant transition, which has been deliberately weakened, and makes it unprepared to handle this new arrivals spike,” said Giulia Gringiani, psychologist and social worker at a reception centre in the city of Monza, in northern Italy. An Egyptian asylum seeker and activist named Hassan said that the reception centre he was sent to reminded him of Egyptian prisons, adding “The conditions are a lot worse in prison, of course, but this was a form of prison. My first thoughts were, how do I get out of here?”

The annual report of the Italian Coast Guard and Port Authorities highlights that some 901 rescue operations were coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard in 2022, resulting reportedly in a total of 57,235 people being rescued. The vast majority of those rescued departed from Libya. Meanwhile, arrivals, as well as rescue efforts continue in the Mediterranean. On 28 June, Alarm Phone reported 41 people in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The organisation added hours later that “The Italian Coast Guard said they would launch a rescue, but no help arrived yet. More and more water is entering the boat. People have no drinking water left and some are sick”, however, MARE*GO found the boat and assisted them. On the same day, MARE*GO found a boat carrying 39 people which had already been on the move for 2 days. The organisation reported that the Italian coastguard rescued them, underlining that some other boats on the scene got intercepted. On 27 June, Ocean Viking, operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE, rescued 86 people, of which 80% were unaccompanied minors, from an overcrowded rubber boat in distress in international waters off Libya. “While Ocean Viking was performing the rescue, the Libyan coastguard approached at distance and remained 4NM away from the operations. The survivors on board are suffering from dehydration, exhaustion and some have fuel burns”, the organisation added. On 25 June, the NGO Hotline, Alarm Phone reported a boat in distress with 104 people on board in international waters after sailing for three days. The people were reportedly rescued by IBLEA, a merchant vessel. On the same day, the hotline reported 34 people in distress after leaving Benghazi in Libya having been adrift in international waters for days. “We have confirmation that the group – they are 34 people – disembarked in Pozzallo, Italy in the early morning!”, the organisation communicated on 27 June. On 24 June, Geo Barents, operated by Médecins sans frontières (MSF), reported the completion of a rescue operation of 13 people, including two women and two unaccompanied minors after receiving a call from Alarm Phone. “The survivors had spent more than 3 days at the Mediterranean Sea”, MSF communicated. On the same day, Alarm Phone reported “22 people in distress fleeing Libya” who were later rescued and brought to Lampedusa. Later on 29 June, the hotline reported: “20 lives at risk off Libya! Alarm Phone was alerted by approx. 20 people in distress, trying to escape from Sabratah in Libya. They are adrift on a wooden boat about 40 nautical miles off #Lampedusa. Authorities are alerted!”. On 22 June, more than 40 migrants including seven women and a minor were missing after their boat capsized between Tunisia and the Italian island of Lampedusa. On 30 June, Alarm Phone “was alerted by a group in severe distress, left this morning from #Sfax. They report to be in the water, as the boat is sinking, and they can’t pass a GPS position. They called Tunisian authorities in vain, but a rescue is needed!”, 40 people are believed to be on the boat.The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said. “It is unacceptable to continue counting the dead at the gates of Europe”, Chiara Cardoletti, representative for UN refugee agency UNHCR wrote on Twitter, underlining that “A coordinated and shared rescue mechanism at sea between states is now also a matter of conscience”. “It is Italy’s and our common European responsibility to stop the ongoing human tragedy in the Mediterranean. It is high time to take collective action to end the loss of life at sea, including through responsibility sharing for adequate rescue capacity and relocation of those rescued”, said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović. Journalist Belén Fernández wrote that anti-migrant policies enforced by the Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, resulting in more deaths in the Mediterranean Sea show “a fascination with fascism”

According to the 2022 annual report of the Frontex Consultative Forum, half of the sightings by the EU border agency Frontex prompted either search and rescue missions or illegal returns by the so-called EU-funded Libyan coastguard from international waters as a result of sharing of information between the agency and Libyan authorities. “It is reasonably foreseeable that intercepted/rescued survivors will suffer serious fundamental rights violations after their disembarkation in Libya, including murder, enslavement, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, trafficking, extortion, enforced disappearance and sexual violence,” the report said. 418 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya in the period of 18 – 24 June 2023, according to IOM and the total for 2023 so far is close to 8,000. Meanwhile, a Sudanese refugee named Harry who “was pulled back to Libya in 2018, in an operation coordinated by Italy” and since then has been imprisoned in Libyan jails won a case, represented by ECRE member ASGI with the support of Mediterranea Saving Humans, against the Italian government on 10 June after a long legal battle. Despite the judge’s request to “issue all acts necessary to allow his immediate entry into the country”, the Italian embassy in Tripoli has ignored the ruling and requests of his lawyers. ASGI said that the court’s decision “finally brings the right to seek protection through entry into Italian territory back into focus”, demanding the Italian government comply with the principle of non-refoulement and act accordingly. Mediterranea Saving Humans added that “Harry today could be celebrating the extraordinary legal victory, so longed for, against the terrible injustice of the illegal refoulement he suffered five years ago. But he is instead suffering from a new atrocious injustice: the Italian Embassy in Tripoli is not responding to his lawyers’ requests, ignoring, thus, the ruling of an Italian judge.”

Malta “exposed its criminal behavior in the Central Mediterranean once again” through “lies, breach of law & intentional letting drown”, Sea-Watch said, referring to two recent incidents that took place on 24 June. In the first case, Maltese authorities “ordered the merchant vessel MANTA ZUHAL to contact Libyan authorities for a distress case witnessed by our airplane Seabird”, resulting in a forced and illegal return of 43 people to Libya by the merchant vessel. The second case concerns “another boat stranded at sea for 3 days without fuel” from which one person fell overboard and drowned, and Malta ignored the Mayday relay by Seabird despite being almost 38km away from the drowned boat. “Eventually, merchant vessel LACONIA arrived, but a Maltese speedboat ordered them to leave. Malta refused to rescue, lied to the distressed persons about Italy’s proximity, & only handed out fuel before abandoning them overnight. Next day: MSF had to rescue 13 people”, the organisation reported. MSF Sea confirmed the latter, saying that “Survivors have witnessed traumatic events as a 23-year-old man from Syria fell overboard and drifted from the rubber boat. They were unable to retrieve him due to the lack of fuel” and reported on 27 June the disembarkation of the 13 survivors in La Spezia, Italy.

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