• A group of NGOs that undertake search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have called on the Italian authorities to desist from obstructing their work on the anniversary of the adoption of controversial legislation.
  • Survivors and relatives of the victims of the Cutro tragedy that claimed at least 94 lives in February 2023 have gathered to commemorate on the first anniversary of the incident.
  • The prosecution in the trial against the four crew members of the search and rescue ship Iuventa and others have requested that the charges should be dropped.
  • The European Ombudsman has published the findings of an inquiry into the Pylos tragedy in June 2023 and called for both changes to the functioning of Frontex and an inquiry into deaths in the Mediterranean.

According to data published by the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in early February, the number of people who crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe fell significantly in January 2024 compared to the previous month. Frontex reported a 41% reduction in the number of “irregular border crossings” into the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean, a 66% reduction in the Western Mediterranean and a 71% reduction in the Central Mediterranean. The Italian government reported a 65% reduction in the number of “migrant arrivals” since the start of 2024 compared to the same period in 2022. On 21 February, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi told the Chamber of Deputies that it marked “the fifth consecutive month of significant reduction when compared year-on-year”. He also reminded them about the government’s commitment to addressing the issue of people trafficking and the legislative measures that it had taken to tackle what he described as the “shameful” issue, and stated that “only by blocking the departures that are operated by human traffickers, we can avoid the tragedy of shipwrecks.”

On 23 February, five people died and eight others were injured off the coast of Malta after their boat capsized during a rescue operation. According to DPA, the boat, which had left Tripoli (Libya) three days earlier, was carrying 34 people believed to be from Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria. The eight people who had been injured were taken to hospital while the other 21 were taken to the Safi detention centre. On 28 February, Moroccan authorities announced the discovery of the bodies of eight people who had drowned when their boat sank off the north coast of Morocco the previous day. AFP reported that the boat had sailed from Morocco’s Nador province and that nine people had been rescued. Reportedly, local authorities said that the search for missing people was continuing and that an investigation into the incident had been opened.

A group of NGOs that undertake search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean issued a joint statement in which they called on the Italian authorities to “bring an immediate halt to the obstruction of our lifesaving activities at sea”. The statement, which was published two days before the first anniversary of the Italian parliament’s vote to convert Decree Law 01/2023 into Law 15/2023, describes it asa clear strategy by authorities to reduce the presence of NGO ships at sea, to limit their capacity to carry out rescues, and to prevent arrivals on Italian shores at all costs”. In addition to its recommendation to the Italian authorities, the statement calls on both Italian and European authorities to “foster effective cooperation with NGO rescue ships and deploy dedicated search and rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean”, and for the EU and EU member states to “halt all material and financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard and governments responsible for serious human rights violations. Despite obstruction of rescue activities by Italian authorities, civil rescue ships continue their mission of saving lives. On 26 February, the search and rescue NGO Sea-Watch International reported that its Sea-Watch 5 ship had rescued 45 people from what it described as an ‘unseaworthy boat’. Writing on X, it expressed surprise that the ship had been instructed to disembark its passengers in Catania “a rarely closer port in Sicily” given the “constant political harassment due to distant port assignment”. The 45 migrants arrived safely on 28 February in the port of Catania after a rough night.

26 February marked the first anniversary of the Cutro tragedy in which at least 94 people died when the fishing boat that they were sailing in sank off the coast of Calabria in southern Italy. A number of survivors of the tragedy and relatives of the victims were among a group of 50 people who travelled to Cutro to commemorate the incident. At an event organised by the We Don’t Forget collective of social organisations, Alidad Shiri, the cousin of one of the victims, 17-year old Atiqullah Khalili from Afghanistan, said: “He had the dream of living freely, and after a year I still don’t have the courage to tell my aunt that we haven’t found his body”. “If there was a European law on family reunification, massacres like Cutro would stop. We have asked for a reunification [policy], but all we get from the [Italian] government is words,” he added. Firas El-Ghazi, a 41-year-old survivor of the incident from Syria told participants in the event that he had travelled to Germany after the tragedy and that he had requested international protection that would have lasted three years and allowed him to bring members of his family to the country but that he had only been granted humanitarian protection for one year. “Our rights have decreased. And so I cannot request a family reunion. We feel cheated. No one kept their promises after the shipwreck off Calabria,” he said. In an X thread to commemorate the first anniversary of the tragedy, the search and rescue NGO Sea-Watch International issued a damning indictment of the Italian coastguard. “The Italian coastguard, fully aware of the distress case, chose not to launch a search and rescue operation – a death sentence for 94 people on the boat. An Italian coastguard rescue boat set off only after a distress call from the sinking boat, eight hours after Frontex first sighted the boat,” it wrote. Matteo de Bellis from ECRE member organisation Amnesty International was also highly critical. “The Cutro shipwreck was not an accident. Whereas the government only blamed smugglers, judicial investigations are confirming that inaction by Italian coast and border guards resulted in avoidable fatalities,” he wrote in a thread on X. The NGO EMERGENCY used the anniversary to urge European authorities to prioritise safe and legal routes for people trying to reach Europe and for improvements to search and rescue efforts. They X posted: “To prevent more deaths and tragedies at sea, we need to establish safe and legal routes, and a coordinated European search and rescue operation”.

On 28 February, the prosecution in the trial against the four crew members of the search and rescue ship Iuventa and others requested that the charges should be dropped. According to the Iuventa Crew campaign, in their final statement, the public prosecutor in Trapani (Sicily) ‘unexpectedly acknowledged the lack of arguments to support the charges against the crew’. Reacting to the latest development in the legal case that has already lasted more than six years, Elisa De Pieri from Amnesty International welcomed the news and expressed hope that the case would “finally be thrown out”. “The Iuventa ship has saved more than 14,000 lives, including children, and its crew has done so upholding the law of the sea,” she added. She also urged the Italian authorities to “stop misusing criminal proceedings and charges of facilitation of irregular migration to obstruct life-saving activities”. The Iuventa crew case has attracted high profile interventions. In a statement issued on 9 February, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, criticised the criminalisation of human rights defenders engaged in search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean. “The ongoing proceedings against human rights defenders from search and rescue NGOs are a darkening stain on Italy and the EU’s commitment to human rights,” she said. She added: “They are being criminalised for their human rights work. Saving lives is not a crime and solidarity is not smuggling”. Commenting on the latest development in the trial, the rescue NGO Louise Michel wrote on X: “After the relief comes the anger. 3 million Euros and 7 years wasted on a theatre trial to demonise migration and frighten those standing in Solidarity”. The court is expected to reach a decision on whether the four Iuventa crew members and other crew from rescue ships operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Save the Children will be indicted on 2 March.

On 26 February, the European Ombudsman found that current rules mean that Frontex is both ‘unable fully to fulfil its fundamental rights obligations’ and ‘too reliant on EU member states to act when boats carrying migrants are in distress’. The findings were the outcome of an inquiry launched by Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly following the Adriana tragedy in which more than 600 people died when their boat sank in the sea near the Greek coastal town of Pylos in June 2023. One of the issues identified in Ombudsman O’Reilly’s report related to the lack of a proper system of investigation at the EU level for independently verifying whether or not international law was respected during search and rescue operations in international waters. “While the Greek Ombudsman is investigating the actions of the Greek coastguard, there is no single accountability mechanism at EU level that could independently investigate the role of the Greek authorities, the role of Frontex, and the role of the European Commission, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with fundamental rights provisions under the EU treaties,” she wrote. She also criticised Frontex’s lack of internal guidelines on issuing emergency signals. “The inquiry also showed that Frontex has no internal guidelines on issuing emergency signals (Mayday calls), and that there is a failure to ensure that Frontex’s fundamental rights monitors are sufficiently involved in decision making on maritime emergencies,” she added. In an opinion piece that she wrote for the Guardian, Ombudsman O’Reilly explained her call for an enquiry. “In light of the enormous number of deaths in the Mediterranean in recent years, I am calling on the EU to initiate a commission of inquiry into the factors that have caused this humanitarian crisis”, she wrote. She also explained her proposal for changing the functioning of Frontex: “Legal changes at EU level would be needed to allow Frontex to act on its own initiative in search-and-rescue situations and to rebalance the division of responsibilities between the EU and its member states,” she added. Her proposal was welcomed by several observers. Tineke Strik MEP wrote on X: “This echoes previous calls by the EP. We must take action if we take human rights seriously.” Claudia Bonamini from ECRE member organisation JRS Europe wrote: “Frontex involvement in fundamental rights violations is just the result of a system flawed by design and we need to look beyond the Agency to fix it. Good to see this confirmed by the European Ombudsman today”. Amnesty International wrote: “After a series of tragic avoidable shipwrecks & thousands of pullbacks to detention and torture in Libya enabled by Frontex, reforms are long overdue”.

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