Alarm Phone’s latest report reveals a significant increase of crossings and distress alerts on the central Mediterranean in 2022 despite deaths and crackdown on migrants and search and rescue organisations. Italy’s far-right government aims to meet with third countries including Libya, Tunisia and Turkey all with dubious human rights records. A series of Judgments by ECtHR confirms Malta’s violations of refugees’ rights and failures to respect its international commitments.

A new report by the NGO hotline, Alarm Phone notes an increase in crossings and distress alerts through the Mediterranean in 2022 despite ongoing deterrence efforts including increased cooperation between European countries and Tunisian authorities and the so-called Libyan Coast Guard as well as new strategies to obstruct the work of search and rescue organisations. About 105,000 people have arrived through the central Mediterranean route in 2022, a considerable increase from the 67,500 people who arrived in 2021, the 34,000 in 2020, and 11,500 in 2019. In 2022, Alarm Phone was alerted to 673 boats in distress in the central Mediterranean region, compared to 27 distress cases in 2018, 101 in 2019, 173 in 2020, and 407 in 2021. Meanwhile, 30 people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean since the start of 2023.

Italy’s far-right government has stepped up its crackdown on migrants and those who assist them. According to Civil MRCC: “The war unleashed by the Italian Government against people on the move and solidarity was heralded as a triumphant “Ride of the Valkyries”. In three months it has now turned into a grueling chess game, with moves and countermoves taking place between the refinement of the border regime’s brutalisation strategies, and the solidarity practices of resistance and counter-offensives against the authorities”. The effect of the controversial Italian policies denounced by NGOs for leading to more deaths were illustrated recently through delayed disembarkations and extended and dangerous extra travel for survivors from the Ocean Viking and Geo Barents. MSF, operating Geo Barents stated: “It doesn’t end here. We will take legal action against the allocation of distant ports. Italian authorities are not in line with the conventions. The government must respect its international commitments” (translated). Meanwhile, the Court of Rome issued a judgement on the shipwreck of 11 October 2013 after nine years of waiting stating that the Italian coast guard and navy are responsible for the death of 268 refugees due to failure to provide assistance. However, three human rights organisations ECRE member PRO ASYL, borderline-europe and Alarm Phone reacted stating: “Distress calls at sea must be taken urgently and rescue operations must be launched without delay. This is the central message of this lawsuit, which is not only directed at the Italian coastguards but at all coastguards and rescue forces in the Mediterranean”, adding: “The accused persons, who were found responsible, could not be held accountable because of the time-bar. This remains a bitter experience for the relatives of the victims”.

Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni met on 11 January with her government to forge meetings with third countries and discuss the new decree clamping down on NGOs running migrant rescue operations. She is also expected to attend on February 9-10 an EU Council on immigration. Furthermore, Minister of Interior Matteo Piantedosi has also planned a series of visits, starting with Turkey. Also, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani is scheduled to travel soon to Tunisia, Turkey and Libya. He recently held talks with Tunisian counterparts to receive “reassurances that more controls will be carried out on the departure of migrants”. According to Civil MRCC Tunisia is “increasingly the target of European countries’ border externalization policies and controls are being tightened along the route to Italy”. Meanwhile, the Court of Rome ruled on the shipwerk  36 people were intercepted and returned to Libya by the EU-funded so-called Libyan Coast Guard in the period of 8 – 14 January 2023 bringing the total this year to 1,103. And on 19 January, Alarm Phone received a call from a group of 43 people on a boat in distress close to the Libyan shore, adding: “We hope the so-called Libyan coastguard will act swiftly and without delay!”. A few hours after the alert and the so-called Libyan Coast Guard hasn’t provided any assistance amid reports of drowning.

After reiterating debunked myths of civilian rescuers constituting a pull-factor, Maltese Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri again made unsubstantiated public remarks. This time claiming that 51% of migrants coming to Malta in 2022 originate from “safe” Asian countries where “no war was taking place”. However, Camilleri provided little context and failed to mention that just 450 people arrived to Malta throughout 2022 and that as illustrated by UN Refugee Agency (UHCR) statistics for the first nine months of 2022, Syrians make up 40% of the total number of sea arrivals. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) delivered multiple judgements concerning cases brought by ECRE member Aditus Foundation to the court, confirming failures in Malta’s asylum system. On 20 December 2022, ECtHR published a judgement concerning the case of a Bangladeshi asylum seeker S.H. whose journalistic career included reporting against the corruption and fraud committed during the latest elections at his country of origin, yet Malta failed to assess his international protection claim in accordance with the required standards, which resulted in a series of negative decisions leading to a potential removal to Bangladesh. ECtHR upheld the applicant’s fundamental rights and harshly criticised Malta’s failure to assess the large amount of evidence the applicant had brought in support of his claims. On 12 January, Malta was ordered by the court to release seven unaccompanied children, who were rescued and brought to the country, from detention centres as well as urged to “ensure that the applicants’ conditions are compatible with Article 3 of the Convention and with their status as unaccompanied minors”. Moreover, on 17 January, ECtHR ordered Malta to deport two Muslim Chinese nationals of Uyghur ethnicity. After their application for international protection was rejected in 2017, they were issued a return decision and removal order on August 2022 despite a real risk of being subjected to serious violations of their human rights based on their ethnicity and religion. “This order from the European Court of Human Rights is yet another condemnation of Malta’s asylum procedure. It keeps on failing those who need in most: persons fleeing persecution and atrocious human rights violations. It is high time that Malta reviews its approach to asylum to ensure that it fulfils its core mission of protecting refugees”, Aditus stated.

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