Italy has seen a significant increase in arrivals over the first part of 2023 compared to last year and deaths on the central Mediterranean route have also increased. Malta continues to apply non-response tactics and facilitates returns to war-torn Libya notorious for abuse of migrants. 

More than 47,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by late May 2023 compared to 18,000 in the same period of 2022. At the same time the number of people who have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean is up from 690 to 975 in the first four months of 2023 compared to the same period of 2022 according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM’s) Missing Migrants Project. On 31 May, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported of another tragic incident: “a boat with approx. 41 people who had fled from Tunisia. We never established direct contact. Today, a survivor reported that 13 people died, survivors were returned to Tunisia. We are devastated. Borders kill!”. According to Brookings: “Tunisia is quickly replacing Libya as the primary route for people hoping to reach Europe’s shores. Along with the increase in crossings, there has been an unprecedented number of deaths at sea, requiring urgent policy responses. Meanwhile, increasing authoritarianism and inflammatory remarks from Tunisian President Kais Saied have potentially put refugees and migrants at new risk of mistreatment and violence”. A recent example occurred on the night of 20-21 May in Sfax, east-central Tunisia when seven Tunisians, armed with knives and swords, stabbed a man from sub-Saharan Africa to death and injured five others during an attack on a house occupied by 19 migrants. Protests continue outside offices of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) with migrants and refugees demanding evacuation in the face of racist attacks and a crack-down by authorities.

Meanwhile, civilian rescuers continue to save lives despite the ongoing crack-down by Italian authorities. According to Civil MRCC figures, during the first four months of this year, 3.175 people were rescued by the civil fleet from 44 boats in distress. On 30 May, 22 survivors including three young children and 12 unaccompanied minors rescued by the Nadir vessel operated by RESQSHIP, could disembark in Lampedusa. On the same day, 88 survivors including 10 children rescued by Humanity 1 operated by SOS Humanity disembarked in the port of Livorno. Also on 30 May, Geo Barents, operated by MSF Sea disembarked 599 survivors including 151 children, rescued after alerts by the Italian Maritime rescue authorities, in the port of Bari. On 2 June, MARE*GO recently joining the civil fleet reported: “After rescuing 36 people from distress at sea this morning, MareGo was assigned to the port of Trapani, Italy – a minimum of 32 hours away. We clearly communicated to the authorities that MareGo is not equipped to treat the rescued people on the move for that period of time”. MareGo is heading instead for Lampedusa, stating: “As many others before us we are facing a border regime willing to do anything to let people on the move drown at the sea and stop those in solidarity from intervening”. An investigation from the Lighthouse Reports and other news organisations exposes how Italy lied about its role in the Cutro shipwreck that killed at least 94 people including 35 children three months ago and how the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) helped Italy cover it up. Thanks to leaked confidential documents from Frontex, the article reveals that “Italian authorities and the Frontex leadership were aware that the boat was showing signs of distress when the ship was first spotted six hours before the wreck, but nevertheless decided not to intervene – and later tried to conceal how much they knew.” In its coverage of the case, Le Monde also exposes that Frontex analysts have underestimated how dangerous the route taken by the shipwrecked vessel ‘Summer Love’ from Türkiye to Italy is, although the UNHCR registered 25 rescue operations and two shipwrecks on this very route in 2022.

Maltese authorities continue tactics of non-response and facilitation of returns to Libya. On 31 May, RESQSHIP reported finding “a boat in the Maltese SAR zone with 37 people on board, including three minors. Our crew reported the case, provided the people with life jackets and accompanied them for several hours towards Lampedusa”. According to the organisation the group was later taken to Italy by the Italian Guardia di Finanza. On 30 May, the Seabird plane operated by Sea-Watch found a boat with 400 people in distress in Maltese waters, stating: “The Maltese MRCC ignores the emergency and refuses to cooperate. The following day, the organisation stated: “Despite several reports to the sea rescue control centers, the people were not rescued overnight. At some point, the Maltese sea rescue control center stopped responding at all”. Alarm Phone lost contact  the group on 31 May, but hopes for confirmation that the Italian authorities have conducted a rescue. The Sea-Eye 4 vessel that carried 49 people after several rescues in Maltese waters were looking for the group, that reportedly were in fact eventually rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. On 1 June, Alarm Phone reported: “~150 people in distress in Malta SAR! We were alerted to a rubber boat in distress. They fled Libya, are running out of fuel and need to be rescued before it’s getting dark! They are searching for a place of safety! Authorities are informed: Rescue them now!”.

In a joint statement released on 29 May, Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans and EMERGENCY denounces Malta over abducting 500 people at sea and coordinating a “criminal mass pushback by proxy” to Libyan prisons. The statement concludes that despite alerts to authorities: “The 500 people had not been rescued. Instead, they had been towed back – over 330km – to the Libyan port of Benghazi – an illegal pushback coordinated by RCC Malta. According to relatives, the 500 people were brought to a prison in Benghazi”. An Armed Forces of Malta spokesperson told media that it carried out multiple searches of the boat, based on multiple verifications of its location. “No boat was sighted in the reported position,” the spokesperson said, adding that “Maltese authorities have no jurisdiction over any autonomous actions conducted in International waters”. The UN agencies, IOM and UNHCR told media that 485 people were reportedly brought back to Benghazi by a vessel belonging to the “self-styled Libyan National Army, a force in the east of the country led by military commander Khalifa Haftar”. The UN agencies could not immediately confirm it was the same group of migrants reported by Alarm Phone. Regardless, on 29-30 May, for the first time, a Maltese diplomatic delegation, met with Haftar. Reportedly, the delegation led by the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and Trade, Christopher Cutajar, met the commander for talks in Benghazi on security challenges faced by Malta and Libya in the region.

Meanwhile, at least four people have been killed in conflict-ridden Libya in drone strikes on fuel depots and command centers of “human traffickers” in the port cities of Zawiya and Zuwara. Reportedly, the attack is an attempt by the EU-backed Tripoli government to stop departures of migrants to Italy. However, the eastern-based parliament in the divided country accuses the Tripoli government of attacking one of its legislators’ homes. Amid critique over the “unacceptable” use of such weapons in civilian areas and calls for de-escalation by Western embassies, the Tripoli government defended the strikes. According to Tripoli, they represent the “successful” first phase of its ongoing operation and resulted in: “Seven migrant smuggling boats, six drug trafficking depots… and nine tanker trucks used for fuel smuggling” being destroyed. A recent study, commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the LIBE Committee, reiterates Italy’s and EU’s complicity in human rights abuse and crimes against humanity in Libya. “The EU’s indirect support and aid have occurred despite the fact that all the relevant EU actors – including those in DG Home Affairs and DG NEAR of the Commission, the EEAS and the Ambassadors to the Political and Security Committee (PSC) in the Council – have at all times known or being informed that the safety and human rights of those who have been returned to Libya could not be ensured at all by civil society actors like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or international organisations like UNHCR and IOM, which cannot be expected to realistically perform their roles. Asylum seekers intercepted at sea in Libyan or international waters have been forcibly returned to Libyan territory where many face torture and inhumane/degrading treatment in Libyan detention camps, which qualify as international wrongful acts and crimes against humanity”. According to the author, Sergio Carrera, a senior research fellow for the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies: “There is still a lack of willingness to recognise the European Union’s indirect responsibility for crimes against humanity”. 726 people were intercepted and returned to Libya in the period of 21-27 May and the total for 2023 so far is 5,784, according to figures from IOM Libya.

It has recently emerged that the cargo ship, involved in the so-called El Hiblu case against three teenage migrants in Malta, was caught smuggling almost €76 million worth of cocaine while operating under a different name. The owner of the vessel who testified against the three migrant youths – charged by Malta over alleged terrorism and hijacking – describes himself on Facebook as a “Libyan pirate”. According to Director of ECRE member Aditus Foundation, Neil Falzon: “It confirms our suspicions that the El Hiblu operators are a bunch of ruthless criminals. It confirms our fears that Malta’s case against our clients is entirely based on statements made by a gang of pirates. Ultimately, it confirms our clients’ story that they were the victims of a twisted scheme”. Falzon notes: “The question is now: why is Malta pursuing this case against these three young men?”.

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