Ongoing arrivals, deaths and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean amid negotiations on the widely-criticised EU’s financial support to Tunisia for tighter border control and better surveillance equipment. Maltese Prime Minister, Robert Abela, renewed calls for joint efforts to combat migration as the EU and Dutch authorities discuss the use of relocation mechanisms to detain survivors of distress in Maltese detention centres for faster deportations.

The number of irregular crossings at the EU’s external borders reached 102.000 in the first five months of 2023, 12% more than a year ago, according to data published by European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). So far this year, the Central Mediterranean remains the most active route into the EU, with more than 50,300 detected crossings by member states. This route accounted for nearly half of the irregular entries to the EU in 2023 as the arrivals on this route rose by 12% of all entries to the EU while declining on other migratory routes. Moreover, arrivals, as well as rescue efforts, continue. On World Refugee Day marked on 20 June, three people were reported missing in a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa after the Italian coast guard could rescue 44 people. The Italian authorities asked RESQSHIP to assist in the search of the three people but with no result. “Italy’s late reaction about a distress case yesterday cost 3 people their lives. Despite multiple alerts from Sea Bird about the entry of water in the boat, help came too late for 3 people. 44 people could still be rescued”, Sea-Watch said. On 19 June, RESQSHIP rescued 36 people in distress and brought them to Lampedusa.  On 18 June, the organisation communicated “The Nadir is currently accompanying 2 boats with a total of 73 people on board towards Lampedusa, including 2 pregnant women. The relevant authorities have been informed – we request immediate assistance before darkness falls”. On 17 June, the Italian coast guard rescued 103 people from a sailboat off the southeastern coast of Calabria and took them to the port of Roccella. Reportedly, the boat had sailed near the site of the deadly shipwreck off Pylos in Greece which left at least 81 dead and hundreds missing. On the same day, the rescue ship of Open Arms Fund rescued 117 people including 25 women, 31 children and a 3-year-old child and was later assigned the port of Livorno, which requires at least 4 days of navigation – three times further than the closest safe port in Sicilia. The organisation stated “Suffering always falls on the most vulnerable: the 117 castaways rescued from the Med, who flee from Sudan, Eritrea, and Libya, conflict-ridden countries where violence and abuses prevail. And they punish civil society organizations that comply with international maritime legislation and protection of life at sea”. The organisation announced on 21 June the disembarkation of 117 survivors after five days of navigation. On 15 June, the Italian authorities seized the German ship Aurora, operated by Sea-Watch for disregarding the new rules that oblige rescue NGOs to go immediately to the port assigned to them after an operation. Currently, there are three rescue ships in detention. “The detention of the Aurora is the direct consequence of a political regime that blocks and criminalizes civil sea rescue. As a victim of these policies of Italy, the people in distress on the Mediterranean face death”, the organisation communicated.

Following the visit of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Tunisia, the commission announced on 11 June its readiness to support the country with a total of more than €1 billion of aid covering five pillar areas including “fight against irregular migration to and from Tunisia and the prevention of loss of life at sea”, “increased trade and investment”, “mutually beneficial energy cooperation” and “stronger cooperation on research, education and culture” under a potential new “comprehensive partnership package”. The proposal, which should be signed before the end of the month at the next European Council, comes also at a hard time for Sub-Saharan migrants who have endured a wave of violence following the racist remarks by the Tunisian president, Kais Saied. Von der Leyen said during her visit to Tunisia “The objective is to support a holistic migration policy rooted in the respect of human rights”. “Rooted in human rights? Really?”, July Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, questions. “It is the erosion of human rights combined with the rapid deterioration of the economy that is driving Tunisians to leave the country”, she added, underlining that “far-right, anti-immigration, and populist movements have been able to profit from the absence of any clear EU line. The union has only itself to blame for the inability to tackle issues that have domestic political repercussions and negative consequences for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)”. According to Professor Sofien Jaballah, “The survival and stability of political regimes in Tunisia, regardless of their democratic or autocratic nature, depend on their adherence to European migration policies. Compliance with these policies also determines their eligibility to receive European support”. The proposed deal follows the other widely-criticised EU deals and funding which reportedly “have played a role in perpetrating crimes against humanity against refugees and migrants in Libya, and to have emboldened the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in Sudan, which has now gone to war”, writes Sally Hayden. Rescue organisation, Sea-Watch, stated that the bottom line of such agreements is “migration prevention and deportations through illegal pullbacks at the EU’s external borders”, adding that “the EU is sticking to its deadly policy”.

A few days after the announcement of the EU aid package to Tunisia, on 14th June, President Kaïs said in a call with president of the European Council, Charles Michel that “Tunisia is only the guarantor of its own borders”. Saied also underlined that “Tunisia refuses to be a country of transit or a place of settlement”, arguing that “the phenomenon of migration can only be tackled by eliminating the causes and not by limiting ourselves to dealing with the consequences. On 18 June, German and French Interior Ministers Nancy Faeser and Gérald Darmanin visited Tunisia to meet with the country’s Interior Minister Kamal Feki and President to discuss migration including “the development of new legal migration routes”. “We want to create legal migration routes, to take away business from the people smugglers,” said Faeser, adding “We also want to make sure that the human rights of those who are fleeing are protected and that the awful deaths in the Mediterranean stop”. Darmanin promised €26 million for tighter border controls and enhanced surveillance equipment. Meanwhile, the Tunisian coastguard reportedly intercepted 39 people and arrested six people for resisting their interception. Hotline Alarm Phone reported on 21 June that 80 people were in distress off Tunisia, adding that they “alerted the Guarde Maritime about two boats which are currently in distress in Tunisian territorial waters, but authorities refuse to share info if they launched a rescue operation”.

The Maltese government is refusing to publish call logs concerning 500 asylum seekers who found themselves in Malta’s search-and-rescue (SAR) region last month and who were returned to Libya, renewing criticism of Malta’s non-response tactics and coordination of pushbacks. “Due to operative reasons that may include national security, law enforcement, international relations or the safety of its officers, it is not standard practice for the AFM (Armed Forces Malta) to confirm or deny the existence of such information, or to provide it,” home affairs minister Byron Camilleri said on the issue. ECRE member Aditus is less than surprised by Camilleri’s response. “We safely assume there were no billionaires on board of the vessel whose distress calls appeared to go unheeded until Libyan assets forcibly returned them to Libya and its notorious detention camps”, said the organisation. Meanwhile, Maltese Prime Minister, Robert Abela, renews calls for joint efforts to combat migration. “There are lives being lost out at sea which we have no idea about. When we know about them, our sacrosanct principle is to save lives. While we might resist arrivals, we want to safeguard lives as much as possible,” he said. Abela added that one of the ways to stop arrivals in Europe is to deter departures from North African posts by offering “hope, opportunity and investment for people to live there”. Moreover, the Maltese police and officers from the detention unit launched “inspections” of various sites in the island country and arrested six people from Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Liberia for “staying illegally” in the island. The arrested persons are currently held in detention centres while arrangements are made for their repatriation. Borderline-Europe reported that “Email exchanges between EU and Dutch authorities reveal attempts to use relocation mechanisms for detaining survivors of distress at sea” through the asylum procedure in Maltese detention centers and consequently faster deportation. The Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice outlined two options. The first one is a return from Netherlands after readmission from Malta and relocation and the other one is a direct return from Malta by the Dutch authorities.

185 people were intercepted by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard between 11-17 June, bringing the total number of intercepted people to 7477 so far in 2023, according to International Organisation of Migration (IOM). Moreover, people continue to escape Libya. Alarm Phone on 23 June reported of at least 50 people at risk in international water after fleeing from Libya. “The engine stopped working & the boat is adrift. People say water is entering the boat. We alerted authorities & demand a fast rescue to a place of safety”, the organisation said.

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