New tragedies adds to the mounting death tool of people departing Tunisia. MSF Sea takes legal action against administrative measures of assigning distant ports amid renewed critique of controversial law decree. Italy and EU hands over boat to the notorious so-called Libyan Coast Guard with local protests “ruining” ceremony.

Tragedies continue on the deadly Mediterranean route. A baby and his mother as well as a pregnant woman were among at least nine people who lost their lives trying to reach Lampedusa from Tunisia in early February. Reportedly, the deaths were the result of cold and thirst with food and supplies running out leaving people drinking seawater out of desperation. Despite, being alerted by Tunisian fishing boats reporting there appeared to be dead bodies onboard the vessels carrying around 50 people, Maltese authorities remained unresponsive with the Italian coastguard later conducting a rescue operation. On 6 February, Sea-Watch International reported: “In the last few days alone, 12 bodies have arrived on Lampedusa, and two more people are missing. One woman arrived in Lampedusa clinging to a life ring, possibly the only survivor of a shipwreck”. On the same day, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported of: “Deadly days along the Tunisian route to Europe” with “several confirmed shipwrecks and deaths, and at least three boats still missing and whose fate is unknown”. The organisation was alerted “to about 12 boats that had left Tunisia between January 27 and 29” and reports it was “devastated to learn that one of these boats capsized off the coast of Louata, in the governorate of Sfax. While 24 people were rescued by the Tunisian coastguard during the night of January 28 to 29, 13 people are missing. It was also reported that, during the same night, the Tunisian coastguard had intercepted a total of 119 people off the coast of Mahdia and Kerkennah Island”.

According to figures from the FTDES (Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights) more than 575 people died attempting to reach Italy from Tunisia between the beginning of 2022 and the end of November 2022 – the real number could be higher as “countless” boats disappear without being accounted for. Despite the dangers, departures have increased over the last years as has the funding and support led by Italy for the migration control apparatus in Tunisia. InfoMigrants refer information gathered by FTDES of 29,000 interceptions at sea since the beginning of 2022 as well as the number of attacks on migrant boats “dramatically increased”.  A report recently released by Civil MRCC, concludes: “Tunisia cannot be considered a safe place for disembarkation under any circumstances”.

MSF Sea has lodged an appeal with the competent Italian court asking for the annulment of the administrative measures that are “part of a new established practice that the government is applying” of assigning distant ports to NGO rescue operators for disembarkations of survivors with the ports of Ancona and La Spezia as the latest examples. The outrage over the controversial Italian law decree forcing NGO to disembark immediately after rescues continues. “When we rescue one boat, we often already hear from the survivors that there have been more shipwrecks, more people are missing at sea. So, for us, it’s difficult to then just step out of the scene, especially as we would have the capacity to rescue more people,” said head of operations at SOS Humanity, Till Rummenhohl. NGOs are not alone in their critique also raised by the Council of Europe and others and reiterated by the EP Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in a letter to Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson ahead of the Special European Council on 9-10 February. The Italian crack-down on civilian rescue operators continues and the European Center For Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) reports: “10 Feb Iuventa Crew will be in Trapani Italy again facing criminalization for their vital search & rescue work in the Mediterranean. Inadequate interpretation & the Italian Govt’s request to be joint plaintiffs will be on the agenda”. The case against “four members of the Iuventa crew, along with 17 other individuals and three organizations: the NGOs Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as the shipping company which owned the ships Vos Hestia and the Vos Prudence operated by the two NGOs” began in May 2022. According to ECCHR: “The Iuventa mission set sail in 2016 to save lives at sea and in protest against Europe’s fortressed borders. Over the course of just one year, the crew of volunteers rescued more than 14,000 refugees and migrants in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. Italian authorities, however, seized the ship in August 2017 and after lengthy investigations issued members of the crew with an indictment for “facilitating irregular entry” of migrants to Italy. The case is demonstrative of an alarming trend in the criminalization of humanitarian work, shrinking civic space in a key area of human rights defense”.

Meanwhile, Italy’s recent renewal of its Memorandum of Understanding with Libya continues to spark critique. “As part of this renewed agreement, Italy, with the economic and political support of the EU, has in recent years allocated about 124 million euros for the supply of naval and land vehicles, engines, satellite instrumentation, training courses, as well as for the restoration of boats and the supply of housing modules for the creation of an integrated system of control of maritime and land borders in Libya” reports the observatory The Big Wall, a project by Action Aid and Irpi Media. On 6 February, EU and Italy handed over the first of boats for the notorious so-called Libyan Coast Guard at a ceremony in Adria. “Today’s delivery of the search and rescue vessel for the Libyan Coast Guard is a milestone in our fight against illegal migration,” said the Hungarian born, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Varhelyi. ECRE responded calling the ceremony a: “milestone in EU complicity in human rights violations in Libya” and Sea-Watch International stated: “Today in Adria, the Italian government hands over a new patrol boat to Libya to expand violent and illegal pullbacks in the Mediterranean. For the first time, in a public ceremony with representatives of the EU”. The ceremony was met with local protests reportedly ruining the “horror propaganda”.

On 5 February, Migration published a leaked document stating: “Exactly one year ago we have published a leaked EU document on MOCADEM (Operational Coordination Mechanism for the External Dimension of Migration) on this website. This document described a new level of „operational action“. Now we have received a new document, directed from the EU Presidency to the MOCADEM delegations. The paper shows that the EU’s use of „any available leverage“ includes the use of humanitarian aid as a means of keeping refugees out of Europe, as we already noted one year ago. Furthermore it sheds a light on the activities of the Italian intelligence agencies, which started in 2017 and have now become official EU policy. They are directed to foster cooperation with Libyan (and Sudanese) militias to stop people on the move”.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) “In the period of 29 Jan – 4 Feb 2023, 131 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya”. According to the UN agency the total for 2023 is 1,565 so far.

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