As Pope Francis urges common solutions calling deaths “avoidable”, Italy’s Prime Minister Meloni continues to push EU support to stem arrivals. Trial of civilian rescuers in Italy initiated five years ago has again been postponed due to mistakes by the public prosecutor’s office. NGO rescue ships continue to save lives in face of dangerous harassment by the EU sponsored so-called Libyan Coast Guard.

Following the latest melt-down of cooperation between member states, the Commission’s action plan to “address the immediate challenges along the Central Mediterranean migratory route” was endorsed by EU Interior Ministers on 25 November. NGO’s have denounced the plan as unworkable and a recycling of old mistakes and on 2 December, Pope Francis stated: “The inability to find common solutions [on migration] continues to lead to an unacceptable and almost always avoidable loss of lives, especially in the Mediterranean”. Pope Francis further pointed out to EU governments: “Migration is essential to the well-being of this area and cannot be stopped. Therefore, it is in the interest of all parties to find a solution that is inclusive of the various aspects and just demands, beneficial to all and ensures both human dignity and shared prosperity”. However, while far-right and EU skeptical prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni actually now does rely on cooperation across the union, it is with a strict focus of stopping arrivals to Italy. Meloni points to geography making it possible for France and Germany to turn back people without useful qualifications and not qualifying for asylum while Italy: “the selection is carried out at sea by the traffickers who operate the migrant boats”. According to the prime minister: “That is no longer acceptable. We must stop this traffic. Italy cannot be the only country obliged to pay the cost of the waves of migration from Africa”.

Meanwhile, the largest case launched in connection with Italy’s ongoing crack-down on civilian rescuers is halted for the third time – five years after it was initiated. The case involves 21 people including crew members from the Iuventa search and rescue ship as well as people representing other NGOs such as Sea Watch, Save the Children and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) facing up to 20 years imprisonment for “aiding and abetting unauthorised immigration”. The Iuventa Crew, which helped save the lives of 14,000 people before their vessel was seized in 2017, commented in a press release on 3 December on yet another postponement of the trial that “has not progressed beyond the first procedural steps” pointed out: “The reason for this is that the public prosecutor’s office has so far been unable to fulfil its obligation to provide the necessary conditions for all defendants to participate in the trial. Recurrent procedural errors and the prosecution’s disregard for basic fair trial standards, such as the provision of adequate interpretation during interrogations of foreign defendants, have left the judge with no other option but to prolong the proceedings and to let appointments pass unused, in order to give the prosecution more time to rectify its errors”. According to the organisation: “the trial observers, who have so far only been able to observe the proceedings from the outside, are also concerned about the state of the proceedings. They fear that this will not only harm the defendants, but could also have wider consequences for fair justice throughout Europe”. At the latest hearing “the presence of renowned international trial observers was admitted by the court”. Francesca Cancellaro, lawyer of the defense: “As far as we know, this is the first time that a court in Italy has allowed the presence of trial observers in a chamber hearing in order to give civil society the opportunity to be directly informed about what is happening in court”.

Another deadly tragedy has been reported in the Mediterranean. At least four people including two children aged 6 months and 6 years are missing after a shipwreck off Lampedusa. 32 people were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. The NGO hotline, Alarm Phone, has reported of several distress cases over the last week. On 4 December, 39 people that had departed Benghazi, Libya were reported in distress and later allegedly rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. Another 450 people were reported in distress on 5 December off Sicily after departing Libya and were also later rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. On 6 December, 32 people adrift off Sicily were reportedly rescued after losing contact with Alarm Phone. The civilian rescue fleet recently joined by the operator Sea Punks continues to save lives. MSF Sea reported on 4 December the rescue of 74 people including many children and on 5 December the rescue of an additional 90 people including 35 children on the “world’s deadliest migration route” bringing the total number of survivors aboard the organisations vessel Geo Barents to 164 survivors including 50 children saved in just 24 hours. Another rescue operation of 90 people including two pregnant women and more than 30 children on 6 December brought the number of survivors awaiting disembarkation aboard Geo Barents to 254. On 7 December a baby was born on the MSF Sea’s vessel as “The difficult journey, the harsh conditions, the extreme stress and the deep dehydration triggered Fatima’s (female survivor) labor”. According to MSF Sea: “Despite the joyful event, her conditions are now critical, and she needs immediate specialized medical care. For this reason, we are requesting to the Maltese and Italian authorities to arrange an urgent medical evacuation for her and for her 4 sons”. However, Armed Forces of Malta: “has given no option but to separate the family – the mother, Fatima, and her newborn, Ali, would be taken to Malta and her three other sons to Lampedusa”. Late on 7 December it was confirmed that Fatima had been evacuated to Lampedusa along with her children. Another pregnant survivor was evacuated from Geo Barents to Malta on the same day.

In a combined rescue operation on 4 December by Louise Michel and SOS Humanity 103 people were rescued. On 6 December, SOS Humanity reported another rescue stating: “this morning yet another boat in distress was spotted – this time a severely overcrowded rubber boat with more than 100 people. All of them were brought safely on board Humanity 1 by 9:30, with Louise Michel again involved in the rescue”. On 7 December 261 survivors were awaiting disembarkation despite several requests to relevant authorities. In the evening of the same day, Louise Michel reported: “33 people rescued from another boat in distress. The small wooden vessel was found by our crew this evening. Everyone is now safely aboard Louise Michel, where they are being treated by our crew. It was the 5th rescue Louise Michel has been involved in within less than 2 days”.

However, the civilian rescuers and people on the move are not only exposed to the challenge of the Mediterranean Sea, the EU-sponsored so-called Libyan Coast Guard is a cause of constant harassment and danger. Louise Michel reported on 4 December: “This morning our crew were visited by a so-called Libyan Coast Guard vessel asking us to leave their territorial waters. Far into international waters, we kindly reminded them that we were not in territorial waters. They answered by playing music over the official distress channel 16”. On 6 December, SOS Humanity reported: “This morning, two boats of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard appeared & steered towards an overcrowded rubber boat. They carried out an extremely dangerous interception manoeuvre, during which 6 people went overboard, & brought the rest forcibly back to Libya”. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM): “In the period of 27 November – 3 December 633 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya”. Totals for 2022 – 21,457 intercepted and returned and 1,347 dead or missing in the central Mediterranean as of 3 December. Supported by Sea-Watch the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) recently filed a complaint before International Criminal Court (ICC) over crimes against humanity, stating that EU and member state support and collaboration with Libya: “demonstrates the decisive role that high-ranking officials of EU member states and EU agencies play in the deprivation of liberty of migrants and refugees fleeing Libya”. Reports of the dire situation for migrants in Libya continue to mount. Refugees in Libya reported on 4 December of the torture by traffickers of a young man from Niger, stating: “This is a continuous circle of violence which Italy is financing”. The organisation further published a case story on 5 December of a young man who died after being returned to Libya.

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