The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Italy and non-EU state Albania has left key questions unanswered, generated legal concerns and sparked severe critique. The German government is reportedly preparing legislation that would potentially criminalise civilian rescue operators. Meanwhile, civilian actors cooperate to save lives amid the ongoing crack-down by Italian authorities. New evidence of torture and abuse in Libya as interceptions and returns continue.

The controversial Italy-Albania MoU signed on 6 November could potentially allow thousands of people rescued in the Mediterranean to be transferred to asylum facilities in Albania. As outlined in the preliminary ECRE comments published on 9 November: “the text of the agreement contains very little detail about the purpose of the proposed centres and the procedures that will be applied there. Further: “There is also limited information available about the scope of the agreement and which categories of people will be covered by it”. While Italian PM: “Meloni’s comments to the media suggest that the plan is to manage a screening process in the centres” at the same time: “the language in the protocol suggests that asylum border procedures and return procedures will be carried out in the centre”. According to ECRE asylum facilities on Albanian territory under Italian jurisdiction – a model “similar to the “Australian model” rather than the UK-Rwanda deal” has multiple potential legal implications including: “Extra-territorial application of the screening process and the asylum and return border procedures is not allowed”; “Respect for procedural guarantees will not be possible”; “Automatic use of detention is not lawful”; “Conditions in the centres are likely to be unlawful”; “The diversion of SAR operations to Albania will often be a breach of International Law of the Sea (ILOS)”; “Challenges could be brought under Albanian law which will still apply”. On 13 November, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović stated: “The MoU is indicative of a wider drive by Council of Europe member states to pursue various models of externalising asylum as a potential ‘quick fix’ to the complex challenges posed by the arrival of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. However, externalisation measures significantly increase the risk of exposing refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to human rights violations. The shifting of responsibility across borders by some states also incentivises others to do the same, which risks creating a domino effect that could undermine the European and global system of international protection”. Meanwhile, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson stated: “The preliminary assessment by our legal service is that this is not violating the EU law, it’s outside the EU law”. MEP, Tineke Strik responded to the remark, saying: “Without knowing details, the Commission concludes that the Italy/Albania deal is outside EU law. This encourages all Member States to ‘outsource asylum seekers’ who fall under their responsibility, to third countries. And to refrain from solidarity”. Further, the signing of the MoU has sparked critique from MEPs, Italian NGOs and political opposition as well as Albanian experts and local residents in the area set to host the facilities and reportedly the population is split over agreement which must be approved in parliament before effect.

In an editorial EURACTIV points out how the “Italy-Albania migration deal highlights flaws of EU migration pact” stating: “The external dimension of migration exists primarily because leaders know that the EU migration pact (the ten legislative files EU institutions are negotiating), even if adopted, will not make migration much more manageable. Because there is no interest in normalising the movement of certain categories of people within the Schengen area”. German Chancellor Scholz has said he will look “closely” at Italy’s plans and according to Ruud Koopmans, advisor to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, BAMF: “Discussions on finding solutions to increasing asylum numbers are gaining momentum. “More and more countries are looking for solutions. Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany are having discussions along these lines” Koopmans said adding “Deals like the Italy-Albania agreement could present an opportunity for countries neighboring the EU, in that they could help their efforts to join the bloc”.

Meanwhile, as people continue to die and go missing on the Mediterranean a new plan from the German government reportedly threatens civilian sea rescue operators with up to 5 years in prison. On 8 November, Sea-Watch stated: (translated) “So far, the law has made it a criminal offence to bring people into the EU in exchange for money, i.e. to “receive an advantage or be promised” in return. However, the existing distinction between financial motives and altruistic rescue by civilian organisations, which is indicated under international conventions, will be abolished by the planned draft law. In the future, no financial advantage will be necessary to establish criminal liability, and there will be no exception for humanitarian work. As a result, civilian sea rescuers could be charged in court for their life-saving work and threatened with up to 5 years in prison. With the current legislative proposal, Germany joins the repressive policies in Greece and Italy, where sea rescuers and refugees are involved in criminal proceedings that last for years”. On 15 November, Sea-Watch International stated: “Attempt by the Italian government to intimidate us. We received a warning from the Italian Civil Aviation Authority about our aerial monitoring work in the Central Mediterranean. They claim that the support of distress cases in the Mediterranean is solely the state’s responsibility. It’s an abuse of power aimed at deterring us from our life-saving flights amidst a rising death toll”. On 16 November, SOS MEDITERRANEE reported: “Yesterday, Italian authorities detained Ocean Viking for 20 days + a 3,300€ fine after SOS MEDITERRANEE rescued people in distress in Libyan SRR. Libyan authorities didn’t give any instruction nor information about these people left in the middle of the sea”.

However, amid the ongoing crack-down by Italian authorities and German plans civilian rescue operators continue to save lives. On 15 November, Sea-Watch International announced: “Sea-Watch 5 sets sail. We’re sending a ship against Italy’s ultra-right migration policies, against the attacks on asylum and human rights by the EU, & against the attempts of criminalization by the German government. But above all, the Sea-Watch 5 will defend the right to life”. On 12 November, the Civil Fleet reported how numerous NGOs cooperated in saving 290 lives in the central Mediterranean. The news blog described a series of rescues involving sea rescue operators MSF Sea and SOS Mediterranee as well as a reconnaissance plane operated by Pilotes Volontaires and in cooperation with the NGO hotline, Alarm Phone. On 14 November, RESQSHIP reported its vessel Nadir was accompanying an overcrowded boat carrying 50 people with one person falling overboard and rescued by another survivor. The following day the organisation reported rescues of an additional 50 and 39 people in two separate operations. Alarm Phone continues to report distress cases and stated on 15 November: “Many boats in distress in the central Mediterranean! Alarm Phone has alerted authorities to 11 boats, 8 of which we fear are still in distress. Throughout the night, we called on authorities to rescue without delay but clearly, we were not heard. Rescue NOW!”. The NGO hotline also warns of pushbacks to Libya by the EU funded so-called Libyan coast guard or “by proxy” when returns are conducted by merchant vessels.

The evidence of torture and abuse in Libya continues to mount. The organisation, Refugees in Libya has been posting videos of severe torture of migrants detained by militias filming the abuse in the attempt to demand ransoms. David Yambio, the spokesperson and co-founder of Refugees in Libya, explains: “The videos were sent to us by the traffickers themselves,” adding “They use the phones of the victims and contact us on our Whatsapp hotline. We have been able to speak to six people [via this hotline] so far out of the 17 we saw during these video calls”. Yambio further points out: “The traffickers don’t use their phones, they take the phones of migrants and call us with them”, noting: “They have understood that their prisoners have no family to turn to for help. That is how we received the first videos. They called us and filmed the torture sessions”. A survivor rescued by the NGO Emergency in the central Mediterranean stated: “I fled to Sudan and then to Libya where I was imprisoned for six months. Sometimes they would hang us by our feet, or hit us with tubes and bars. They would call our families while we were screaming to make them send money for our release. My mother had to sell her apartment to set me free. I just wanted to get to Europe so I can live a life of dignity and be free”.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) more than 13,600 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya and almost 2,200 people have died or gone missing on the central Mediterranean in 2023 so far.

For further information: