• Crossings via the Mediterranean continue amid ongoing tragedies and increased repression against civil rescue ships.
  • A migrant who spent seven years in Italian prisons charged with human smuggling and causing deaths, fights to prove his innocence amid calls by human rights groups to close migrant detention centres.
  • Malta sees the lowest number of migrant arrivals in February 2024 and appoints a new ambassador for migration to strengthen co-operation with countries of origin.

People continue to cross the Mediterranean despite systematic efforts to prevent their departures from countries of origin or transit. On 13 March, the crew of the Ocean Viking ship rescued 25 people from an inflatable boat in international waters inside the Libyan search and rescue zone. On 11 March, the Geo Barents rescue ship, operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), completed the disembarkation of 261 people rescued on 7 March “despite the additional burdens of assigning two distant ports of safety (Civitavecchia and Genova)”. On the same day, the Lebanese army rescued 20 people from a sinking boat off the coast of Tripoli. Additionally, the Life Support rescue ship, operated by the NGO EMERGENCY, rescued 52 people in international waters off Libya following an alert from Alarm Phone after it had been denied authorization to assist 40 people who were in distress on the Tunisian gas platform MISKAR on 9 March. “At the moment, we do not know whether the people were brought on board the ship overnight or whether they are still on the MISKAR platform: we have asked the relevant authorities about the outcome of the rescue operations and where the shipwrecked people have been taken to without so far getting an answer.” (translated), EMERGENCY stated in a press release. Elsewhere, the Italian authorities detained the SEA-EYE 4 rescue ship for 60 days on 11 March and fined it €3333 for “rescuing a total of 145 people from distress during two operations” on 7 and 8 March. “Although it is illegal and deeply inhumane to return people to a bloody conflict from which they have fled, Italy is demanding that German sea rescue organizations take part in exactly this. Our refusal to take part in these abhorrent disappearances will be punished with ship blockades and fines,” the NGO SEA-EYE said in a statement. On 9 March, Alarm Phone reported the disappearance of 85 people in the central Mediterranean after the so-called Libyan Coast Guard claimed that it could not find them. “We have no news about this group in distress. Neither the authorities in Libya nor in Tunisia provide information on this case to us. Where are they? We are deeply worried about them”, the organisation wrote on X. On the same day and following the rescue of 56 people from distress at sea in international waters on 6 March, the Italian authorities detained the rescue ship Sea-Watch 5 for 20 days on spurious grounds. “Sea-Watch did not disobey the instructions of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, but rather, the Libyan ship Fezzan repeatedly failed to respond to radio contact while bringing dozens of people from another distress case on board to tow them back to Libya forcibly. The Tunisian authorities repeatedly addressed by Sea-Watch did not speak English at first, then denied any responsibility for a medical evacuation and ordered us to contact Italy”, Sea-Watch stated in a press release. Consequently, the operators of the three detained rescue ships (SOS Humanity, Sea-Watch and Sea-Eye), are planning to take legal action against their detention by the Italian authorities. In a joint statement, they said: “Each of the three current detentions is based on false accusations and unlawful demands. The Italian authorities falsely refer to uncooperative behaviour by the ships’ crews towards the so-called Libyan coastguard. Yet all detentions were preceded by attempts by the so-called Libyan coastguard to force people in distress at sea back to Libya in violation of international law”. On 8 March, a group of 50 people were reportedly returned to Libya by the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard, and another group of 61 people were rescued by Sea-Eye. Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration reported a “tragic incident” off the coast of Ben Guerdane on 8 March that cost the lives of at least 10 people and another shipwreck on 7 March in the Central Mediterranean that left 60 people missing after the crew of the Ocean Viking rescue ship managed to rescue 25.

A 32-year-old migrant from Senegal, who was imprisoned for seven years for migrant smuggling and causing death, is fighting to overturn his conviction after his release, with the help of the NGO Baobab Experience. In addition to the fact that he was only accused by one witness, Alice Basiglini from Baobab Experience said that Alaji and the other man who was convicted were sat close to the fuel source but both denied ever having taken the tiller.  “He has, and still is, finding it hard to fully understand and process what happened to him,” said Basiglini, adding that it had pushed him to try to take his own life twice.  “The Italian state stole seven years from him. He will never get that time back,” she explained, underlining  “The least we can do is try to overturn his conviction”. Meanwhile, human rights groups have increased pressure on the Italian authorities to shut down migrant detention centres following the recent suicide of a 19-year-old Guinean migrant at the Ponte Galeria centre. While organisations have described these centres as “black holes for human rights violations”, the Italian government has defended them as “essential to curbing migration to Italy”. Elsewhere, in Trieste, hundreds of Afghan and Syrian migrants are living in deplorable conditions in an enormous, abandoned building known as the “Silo of Shame”. While the Italian authorities have described the situation in Trieste as an “emergency”, the president of the Italian Solidarity Consortium (ICS), Gianfranco Schiavone, said that the claim was “fabricated”.  “The number of migrant arrivals in Trieste is very limited. Statistics show Trieste receives an average of four asylum seekers per day”, he said, adding: “The Italian State cannot say that it is unable to find lodging for four people per day”

After the death of five migrants during a rescue operation off Malta on 23 February, Prime Minister Robert Abela said on 1 March that “The number of arrivals to our country over the past months is, historically, the lowest that we’ve ever had” and that it showed “how Malta is performing well in the “battle” against irregular immigration”. He added that it was no coincidence that Malta had “a consistent trend of the fewest arrivals” explaining that policy decisions taken by the government had prevented Malta from being overwhelmed by migrant arrivals from unstable North African countries. Elsewhere, Malcolm Cutajar has been appointed as the country’s Ambassador for Migration – a new post intended to strengthen work relating to migration in Malta and abroad.  Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said about appointing Cutajar that Malta was seeking closer co-operation with the countries many migrants originate from. He explained that “this work is not only related to the return of immigrants who do not qualify for protection in our country, but also to collaboration on welfare initiatives that can contribute to less people risking their lives into the hands of traffickers”. Meanwhile, after the first preliminary hearing of the “El Hiblu 3” in the Maltese Criminal Court, a judge has ordered the separation of the court case of one of the three, a young Ivorian man who is believed to have absconded to avoid standing trial, from that of the two young men who face the same charges of hijacking the El Hilblu oil tanker.  “Kader has been missing since summer. To date, we have no information about his whereabouts,” a Maltese official said. On 13 March, campaigners and civil society organisations, including the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) marked the beginning of the pre-trial Criminal Court hearings against the ElHiblu 3 in a joint statement: “It is evident that the Maltese state seeks to make an example of the three accused in order to deter others from righteously resisting push-backs to Libya, as these forced returns are a clear violation of international law, constituting a threat to returnees’ lives and wellbeing. The El Hiblu 3’s imprisonment and prosecution constitutes a grave injustice. Instead, they should be celebrated for their actions in preventing the forceful and illegal return of 100 lives to unsafe Libya”. The signatories reiterated their demand for the “dismissal of the bill of indictment altogether”.

For further information: