Following a deadly shipwreck, the Italian government is facing severe critique and response from authorities is under scrutiny. Meanwhile, the government continues its crack-down on civilian rescuers placing MSF Sea vessel, Geo Barents under administrative detention. The African Union have raised strong critique of “hate speech” by the Tunisian president while EU partnering with his country on migration management have been subtle in its response.      

The latest body to be recovered after the deadly shipwreck on 26 February off the southern Italian coast, was a five-year-old boy. At least 67 people have died including dozens of children and more than hundred are feared to have lost their lives. 80 people, of whom 22 remain in hospital, survived the shipwreck of a wooden boat departing from Izmir on 22 February. Family members of the deceased were mourning their loss in the Calabrian town of Crotone, where the coffins of the victims have been laid out in a sports hall. Italian authorities have detained a Turkish man and two Pakistani nationals and charged them for allegedly sailing the boat carrying mainly people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Iran at the cost of thousands of Euro. Italian President Sergio Mattarella demanded EU action after the tragedy and European Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, stated: “We must redouble our efforts on the (EU) Pact on Migration and Asylum and on the Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean”. Meanwhile, the far-right Italian government seemed to point the blame at NGO rescue operators and the victims themselves. “Desperation can never justify travel conditions that endanger the lives of one’s children”, said Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi. Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni stated: “the action of those who today speculate on these deaths, after having exalted the illusion of an immigration without rules, comments itself”, adding that the Italian government “is committed to preventing the departures and with them the consummation of these tragedies, and will continue to do so, first of all by demanding the maximum collaboration from the States of departure and origin”. Marco Bertotto, director of programmes for MSF Italy, stated in response: “I say this with the respect that is due to the victims, with grief for what happened, and also with the firm intention, as requested by Premier Meloni, not to speculate on these tragedies. But we cannot help but say with anger that the first statements by Prime Minister Meloni and Minister Piantedosi are little more than a sad blame game, yet another slap in the face of the victims and survivors of this tragedy”. Reportedly, Athens fumes over Piantedosi’s latest explanation pointing to Greek pushback policies as part of the reason for the tragedy. “Greece is implementing policies of strong containment of arrivals on that route, even with pushbacks that are under scrutiny from the European Union,” the minister said, adding: “So that – and survivors will be asked about it – will have probably influenced the decision to come directly to Italy”.

Meanwhile, the Italian authorities are facing scrutiny over the tragedy on several fronts. Matteo Piantedosi’s claims that it was “materially impossible” to intervene to save the migrants at sea have been challenged. According to the Coast Guard’s local commander, Vittorio Aloi wind conditions were “force 4” on the night of the shipwreck – classified as a “moderate breeze” and Coast Guard vessels could have gone out at sea even with “force 8” conditions. At the same time, the initial deployment of Guardia di Finanza rather than the Coast Guard, whose vessels are better equipped to face rough seas has been questioned by media. In a press release issued on 28 February, the Italian Coast Guard states that the vessel – when it was spotted by an airplane from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) on 25 February: “appeared to be sailing regularly, at 6 knots and in good buoyancy conditions, with only one person visible on the deck of the ship”. A press release issued by Frontex on 1 March offers more detail: “the thermal cameras on board of the Frontex airplane detected a significant thermal response from the open hatches at the bow and other signs that there might be people below the deck. This raised the suspicion of Frontex surveillance experts”. The EU agency further pointed out: “As always in such cases, we have immediately informed the International Coordination Centre of the Themis operation and other relevant Italian authorities about the sighting, providing the boat’s location, infrared pictures, course and speed”. According to the Coast Guard, no distress call came from the boat and the Carabinieri police, as well as the Guardia di Finanza, were alerted about the situation before it was. Reports from people ashore at 4:30 on 26 February and alerts from authorities at the scene, were: “the first emergency information received by the Coast Guard concerning the boat sighted by the Frontex aircraft”. According to the prosecutor, Giuseppe Capoccia conducting an investigation into the shipwreck a lack of coordination may have contributed to the tragedy. “We are certainly seeing a system with gaps, where, probably in perfectly good faith, everyone does their own thing, but which in the end results in a ‘you go, no you go’ situation that can lead to tragic situations like this one,” he said.

Human rights defenders see the tragedy in the broader context of the policies of EU and member states as well as the ongoing crack-down by Italian authorities on civilian search and rescue operators. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, stated: “The Crotone shipwreck & the deaths of so many is a direct result of EU & Italian policies demonising migration. Why are safe, accessible routes to seek asylum not put in place? Why are HRDs & search & rescue restricted & criminalised? There has to be change or more people will die”. Human Rights Watch, stated: “EU policies prioritize death and pain over saving human lives in the mistaken belief that “acting tough” will make people stop trying to get to the EU. But all it does is force desperate people to make ever more dangerous decisions” asking: “How many children’s bodies have to wash up on EU shores before the EU changes its deadly policies?”. The Civil Fleet published a compilation of reactions under the headline “Not a tragedy, but a massacre’, including a quote by MSF Sea, asking: “how many people will have to be sacrificed until Italy and the EU guarantee search-and-rescue operations and support the life-saving work of NGOs?”. On 23 February – shortly after the parliament passed into law a controversial government decree targeting civilian rescue operators – Italian authorities placed the MSF Sea’s rescue vessel Geo Barents under administrative detention and imposed a 10,000 Euro fine on the organisation. “Since Thursday, Geo Barents is detained and we are currently assessing what legal actions we can take to contest. While we are not operational, people continue to die at sea due to the lack of safe passages and state-led rescue mechanisms in the Central Med” MSF Sea, stated on 27 February. The German Federal Ministry of Transport under Volker Wissing (FDP) is ,reportedly, preparing a tightening of the Ship Safety Ordinance potentially the result could be significant costs due to conversions, additional technology, different insurance conditions and other requirements. ECRE member, Pro Asyl stated: “Civilian sea rescue organizations close the gap left by the EU states on the Mediterranean because they do not meet their humanitarian and international obligations. And the Federal Transport Minister Wissing now wants to sabotage this important work?”.

EU has invested substantial resources in migration cooperation with countries in North Africa with dubious human rights records. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied has “announced” a crackdown on “illegal immigration”. Launching his own version of the “great replacement” theory, Saied has stated: “The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations” and accused sub-Saharan migrants for causing “violence, crime and unacceptable acts”. The racist rhetoric has sparked fear well-founded fear among migrants and black Tunisians. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), has documented hundreds of arbitrary arrests and hundreds of evictions without notice as well as violent assaults, including with knives, that police had been slow to respond to. While the rhetoric has been met with prompt and severe critique and denounced as racial hate speech by the African Union, the European Commission has been rather subtle in its response. In Libya – another EU partner notorious for human rights abuse – thousands of migrants are detained under dire conditions. A group of Syrians detained in a prison in the western Libyan town of Zawiya since October, have started a hunger strike. Activists from the Libyan human rights group ‘Belaady’ said three minors are among those refusing food. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) In the period of 19 – 25 Feb 2023, 196 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya and the total for 2023 so far has passed 3000.

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