More than 100 people dead in multiple shipwrecks off Italy and north-Africa. Meanwhile, Malta continues non-response tactics and Italy continues to delay disembarkation of survivors and thereby limiting much needed NGO rescue capacity. The Administrative Law Division of the Council of State in the Netherlands has suspended Dublin transfers to Italy in two cases based on the lack of reception.
The dangerous Mediterranean route continues to generate deaths and distress. On April 24, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported of 26 ongoing distress situations at sea and stated: “Europe, don’t let even more people drown. Mass rescue efforts are desperately needed!”. The call for rescue coordination and capacity was repeated by Sea-watch International the following day when the NGO rescue organisations asked: “How many people have to die before the EU decides on a joint sea rescue program?”. However, after numerous deadly shipwrecks, more than 100 bodies have been recovered off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia and 20 people are missing and one confirmed dead off Lampedusa, Italy. On 27 April, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrant Project announced it had recorded nearly 300 deaths in the Central Mediterranean in just the last 10 days. On 22 April, the Red Crescent recovered 11 dead bodies at the beach of Sabratha, Libya. A Libyan official told media that the number of victims could rise. “In this kind of incident, the chances of survival are slim” the source added. Reportedly, by 25 April the bodies of at least 57 asylum seekers, including children, had been found off the coast of western Libya after several boats sank in the Mediterranean.
Tunisian authorities confirmed on 24 April that two separate shipwrecks off the coastal city of Sfax had resulted in the drowning of five people and that 31 bodies had washed up in a state of decomposition. According to Refugees in Libya, there were children among the victims. Reportedly, 70 bodies had been recovered from the coasts of the governorate of Sfax between 21 and 24 April. Meanwhile, reports of the Tunisian coast guard stealing engines from boats carrying migrants and leaving them adrift at sea continue. On 23 April, Alarm Phone reported: “38 people adrift off Al Amra Tunisia! Alarm Phone was alerted by a group of people who tried to flee Tunisia but got attacked by the Tunisian Garde Nationale who stole the engine”. Interception and return of migrants by Tunisian authorities have sharply risen in 2023 and according to a spokesperson, the coast guard: “thwarted 501 clandestine sea border crossing operations and rescued 14,406 people, including 13,138 from sub-Saharan Africa,” in the first quarter of the year. Also On 24 April, a boat carrying more than 50 people attempting to reach Italy from Tunisia sank off Lampedusa. One person is confirmed dead and at least 20 remain missing. On 26 April, media reported of the Italian Coast Guard recovering the bodies of two women believed to have drowned after the tragedy. On 27 April, Alarm Phone was alerted to a boat in distress, carrying about 30 to 35 people who left from Libya and called urgent rescue operation.
Over the weekend of 22 and 23 April, some 1,200 people arrived to Italy from Tunisia. Officials from the Italian Coast Guard said in a statement that they responded to 35 boats in distress after leaving the North-African country. On 25 April, Italian officials stated that more than 2,200 migrants had been rescued from the Mediterranean Sea and brought to a reception centre on the island of Lampedusa over just 24 hours. Local fishermen and NGO rescue operators have also provided vital rescues. However, amid the deadly chaos erupting in the central Mediterranean, Italian authorities continue to delay the disembarkation of survivors assigning NGO rescue vessels to distant ports and Malta continues its non-response tactics. SOS Humanity reported on 25 April the disembarkation of 69 survivors in Ravenna. The organisation is filing a lawsuit “against the systematic allocation of distant ports before the civil court in Rome, together with Sea-Eye and Mission Lifeline” and stated after the disembarkation: “We are relieved that we were able to bring them to safety. Yet Italy’s systematic ‘distant ports policy’ increases the time they were forced to wait before reaching dry land – and decreases the time we are able to carry out rescues”. On 24 April, MSF Sea reported: “75 persons, including 40 minors and 13 women, were on an unseaworthy wooden boat in distress located in the international waters near Libya. Everyone is now safe on board of Geo Barents and being cared for by the team”. Italy assigned Napoli as a port of disembarkation. On 21 April, SOS MEDITERRANEE announced that its Ocean Viking vessel had rescued 29 people “from an unseaworthy fiberglass boat” in “pitch dark & rough weather”. According to SOS MEDITERRANEE, Italian authorities assigned Bari as port of disembarkation for survivors on board Ocean Viking “770km away, imposing a 2-day navigation. While leaving the area of operations, we fear that other lives will be again at risk in the central Mediterranean”. The boat was in distress for 5 days and left drifting in Malta rescue zone. According to the organisation: “While Ocean Viking proceeded to the evacuation of those in distress, a Maltese helicopter was circling over the dinghy & an Italian patrol vessel was also present on scene, without either of the two assisting”. Maltese authorities notorious for their non-response tactics have been refusing for over a year to release information on “how many people were rescued in Maltese search-and-rescue waters, and how many were brought ashore, taken to Libya or Italy, citing national security reasons while dismissing the request as curiosity“, Times of Malta wrote on 23 April. The outlet – that has sought the information through Freedom of Information requests – states it is requesting the data “in light of claims, over the past years that Malta was failing to assist migrants at risk and of breaking international laws” and notes: “As a public authority, the Armed Forces of Malta is entrusted with public funds to rescue life at sea placing the public authority under the obligation of transparency and accountability”. In response to a parliamentary question Home affairs minister, Byron Camilleri stated on 26 April that 92 people including an unaccompanied child have been brought to Malta after being rescued at sea in 2023 so far. According to ECRE member, Aditus Foundation, Camilleri further pointed out that “once asylum process concludes, they will start work to immediately return those not deserving of protection to their country”. The Nadir vessel operated by RESQSHIP landed 41 survivors in Lampedusa on 26 April and headed back to the SAR zone the following day. Additional rescues have been carried out by NGOs Open Arms and Emergency saving 47 and 55 people respectively – the latter in waters off Libya. SOS Humanity, stated on 27 April: “The German Parliament decided today to extend the German mandate for EU military operation EUNAVFOR MED Irini in the Mediterranean. Germany is thus continuing to support the training of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, proven to have committed human rights violations”. 4,335 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya on the Central Mediterranean route in 2023 as of 22 April, according to IOM.
In comparison, while less than 100 people disembarked in Malta, Italy has seen almost 39,000 disembarkations in 2023 so far and a state of emergency has been declared by the far-right government under the controversial prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. The government has also cracked down on civilian rescue operators and proposed to remove or diminish the rights to temporary protection but the political process has sparked division and pushback from regional governments, with representatives stating:” “We have not been consulted and we can’t learn about things when decisions have already been taken”. Meanwhile, amid closure of parliament and crack-down on political opposition and migrants in Tunisia, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani defined the country: “a key country for stability in the Mediterranean Sea and in North Africa”. EU and Italy are partnering with the regime on migration and European foreign ministers recently discussed how to respond to growing instability in a country that is a gateway for African migration to Europe. “Of course we need reforms in Tunisia,” Tajani stated, adding “We need to start with financing, then we need to wait for the reforms, and then after that we have to move forward with (more) financing”. The minister pointed out: “You don’t want this country to collapse – that would have multiple negative consequences, including on migration”. Successive Italian governments have had modest success in convincing EU partners to show solidarity and increase relocation. However, the reasoning by Italian authorities for the need to suspend Dublin returns to Italy based on the lack of reception capacity was acknowledged by the Administrative Law Division of the Council of State in the Netherlands. The top court ruled in two separate cases on 26 April that due to Italy’s lack of reception facilities, there is a “real risk” that the two asylum seekers will be deprived of basic necessities such as shelter, food and running water. Accordingly, their transfers were suspended and the ruling is expected to serve as a precedent for future cases.
For further information:
- ECRE, Mediterranean: Arrivals and Deaths Up With UN Agency Pointing to Gaps in State Response to Distress, Italy Receives More Critique over State of Emergency, NGOs Warn of Unsafe Tunisia, April 2023
- ECRE, EU Southern Borders: Italy Declares State of Emergency, Malta Continues Non-Response Tactics as More Lives Are Lost on the Med, Tunisia Calls for UN Objectivity Amid Ongoing Crackdown on Migrants, April 2023