- Despite the death of at least 75 people in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2024, people continue risking their lives to reach European shores.
- The Open Arms rescue ship is facing a 20-day detention order while the Ocean Viking has completed its second detention in two months
- Italian MPs have voted to approve the controversial deal while Albania’s top court continues to review its legality
- The European Border and Coast Agency (Frontex) praises the efforts of Cyprus for a “successful” migration strategy amid increased far-right violence against migrants
According to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, 75 people have already been reported dead or missing in the Central Mediterranean since the start of 2024. Meanwhile, the bodies of some of the people who went missing in 2023 have been recovered. On 19 January, the bodies of four people, including a two-year-old girl from Guinea, who died when a boat sank in November, were transferred from Lampedusa to Sicily for burial. Of the estimated 53 people who were on board the boat that had departed from Sfax in Tunisia, eight were reported missing at the time. In the same week, Turkish authorities found the bodies of nine people that were believed to be migrants on beaches in the Manavgat and Alanya regions. Three other bodies were also found on the Karpass peninsula in Cyprus. According to the Lebanese embassy in Ankara, the victims may have been part of a group of 90 people who were on a boat that went missing in December as it sailed from the Lebanese/Syrian coast to Cyprus. On 24 January, a child who had been found unconscious on a boat that had been drifting for several days in the Eastern Mediterranean died in hospital in Cyprus. The girl was one of three children in a group of 60 Syrians who had travelled from Lebanon and who were rescued by Cypriot authorities off Cape Greco after having been at sea since 18 January. Commenting on the girl’s death, the Cypriot NGO Action for Equality, Support and Antiracism (KISA) said that “ministers and police had been aware since the weekend that the boat had disappeared” and asked: “What have they done or failed to do so that today we have a loss of human life?”. Also on 24 January, 60 people were rescued off Cape Greco in Cyprus. According to Cypriot officials, the group had been at sea for almost a week and had run short of food and water. Six members of the group, including five children, were airlifted to hospital where three were placed in intensive care. The Alarm Phone initiative had highlighted the fact that the boat was missing several days earlier. On 21 January, 190 people were rescued from three boats that were also sailing off Cape Greco. Despite the overall success of the rescue, the Cypriot authorities undertook a further operation to search for a man who had jumped into the sea a few miles offshore before the rescuers’ arrival. The search was eventually called off on 23 January without yielding any results. On 20 January, the Spanish NGO Open Arms disembarked 57 people from its rescue vessel of the same name in Crotone, Italy.
Italy continues to criminalise and obstruct the rescue operations of civil organisations. The NGO Open Arms was punished by the Italian authorities with a 20-day administrative detention order in Crotone, Calabria, and a fine that could be as high as 10.000 euros. While the authorities stated that the decision was made as a result of the civil ship’s obstruction of rescue operation conducted by a Libyan patrol boat, Open Arms wrote on X “This is the 15th time a rescue vessel has been detained since January 2023”, adding: “This accusation, in addition to being false, our ship was limited only to OBSERVING the actions of the Libyans, legitimizes a practice prohibited by the Geneva Convention.” The organisation decried the detention order, saying: “This procedure is completely unjustified, since the 3 rescues carried out were coordinated by the Italian authorities and we followed all the instructions received from the MRCC [National Coordination Center for Maritime Rescue]”. It added: “At sea, the rule of law has been suspended, humanitarian ships operate without any clear legal framework, making it impossible to guarantee the safety and rights of those people who try to cross the sea in a vulnerable situation”. Open Arms’ criticism of the new decree law was echoed by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The organisation’s international president, Dr Christos Christou, said: “The Italian Decree-Law is just one of the latest examples of how European states are using their administrative powers to punish organisations involved in rescuing lives at sea. While the authorities target our vessels, the real price is paid by those fleeing for safety.” He also highlighted the negative impact that the decree law has had on search and rescue capacities in the region, saying: “Since this decree came into force, this is the 15th detention of an NGO ship; cumulating to a total of 300 days where the civilian fleet was kept away from the Central Mediterranean, reducing the rescue capacity in this deadly route”. On the same day, the Ocean Viking rescue ship was able to return to sea after having completed a 20-day detention order, the second that she had received in two months. In addition to the detention orders, the SOS Méditerranée ship has been forced to disembark people in ports that are far away from rescue sites. Writing on X, the organisation highlighted the financial burden that this placed on its lifesaving work: “In total, the Ocean Viking sailed 67 days to and from these remote ports, taking the ship away from where it is most useful. This cost more than 650,000 euros in additional fuel”.
On 24 January, Italian MPs approved the government’s controversial migration agreement with Albania while Albania’s top court continues to review the legality of the deal. The proposal, under which more than 30,000 migrants a year who arrive in Italy would be housed in two centres in Albania while their asylum claims are being processed, will now go the Senate for approval. Prior to the vote, Amnesty International issued a statement in which it urged MPs to reject the agreement. The organisation’s migration and asylum researcher, Matteo de Bellis, said: “By externalizing asylum processing and detention outside national borders, this agreement represents yet another shameful attempt by Italy to circumvent international and EU law, with possible severe consequences for people seeking asylum” and “This unworkable, harmful and unlawful proposal would see people in distress subjected to long and unnecessary transfers by sea and ending up in automatic and potentially prolonged detention, in violation of international law”. He added: “Rather than ratifying this harmful agreement, Italian MPs should instead support measures to ensure adequate reception in Italy, access to an effective asylum procedure, and safe, regular access routes, particularly for people seeking international protection”. On 21 January , Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss a possible agreement between Italy and Turkey aimed at reducing the number of people who travel from Libya along the Italy-Turkey corridor. Meloni’s trip is an opportunity “to confirm the strategic nature of the partnership, at a bilateral level, in the NATO framework and the Mediterranean basin” with Turkey, Italian diplomatic sources said. Meanwhile, the Italian Red Cross (CRI) has signed an agreement with the Agrigento prefect’s office to manage the new Porto Epedocle migrant hotspot in Sicily. Under the terms of the agreement, the CRI be responsible for initial reception, healthcare and social services, orientation and inclusion, and linguistic and cultural training. The organisation has been managing the hotspot on Lampedusa since June. 90 people who had previously been housed in the Lampedusa hotspot were transferred to Porto Empedocle on 19 January on the orders of the prefect’s office.
Amid an increase in far-right violence against migrants and organisations supporting people on the move in Cyprus, EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) praised Cypriot authorities for its “successful” immigration strategy. During a meeting with the Cypriot interior minister, Constantinos Ioannou, the head of Frontex’s Liaison Office for Greece and Cyprus, Grigorios Apostolou, congratulated Cyprus’ “commitment and efficiency” regarding migration management and conveyed Frontex’s readiness to “continue its support to Cyprus and strengthen cooperation for even better results”. Mr Ioannou spoke about the importance of Frontex’s presence in the region, saying: “the tightening of EU border controls by Frontex will contribute to better border surveillance along the Eastern Mediterranean route and prevent irregular arrivals.”
For further information:
- ECRE, Mediterranean: Central Mediterranean Route Was the Most Active Migratory Route in 2023 – Crossings and Rescue Efforts Continue, Multiple Trials Related to Migration in Italy Happening as Court Prepares to Rule on Albanian-Italian Deal –Attack on Human Rights NGO KISA Highlights Rise in Racist Violence, January 2024
- ECRE, Mediterranean: Crossing Attempts Continue Despite Ongoing Crackdown on NGO Rescue Ships, Malta Makes the “Worst Decision Possible” By Sending El Hiblu 3 to Trial, December 2023