First quarter of 2023 sees increase of arrivals across the Mediterranean with Italy as main entry point. Renewed critique over EU complicity in cycle of abuse and crimes against humanity” in Libya. As Italy and France continue to clash over migration, NGOs are concerned over pushbacks across their borders.

According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), irregular border crossings into EU across the Central Mediterranean quadrupled in first 4 months of 2023 compared to the same period of 2023, rising to the highest level since the agency began collecting data in 2009. Detections reported by national authorities on the Central Mediterranean route increased to almost 42,200 by end of April. Figures published on May 5 by the Italian interior ministry sets the number of arrivals to Italy at 42,449 since the start of the year. On 7 May, the arrival of nearly 2,000 people at Lampedusa in less than three days was reported. A total of 1,053 people are reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean this year as of early May.

Green MEP, Tineke Strik stated on 15 May: “Very worrisome developments in Italy: The loss of so many lives in the recent shipwreck. The new immigration laws that strip away rights. The crackdown on Search and Rescue NGOs. I have arrived at Lampedusa, followed by Rome to assess the situation on the ground”. According to Strik: “None of these issues can ultimately be solved without a humane EU response rooted in solidarity and fundamental rights”. However, this is not a reflection of the reality presented to her by civilian rescuers: “Malta is non-responsive to distress calls and Italy instructs vessels to bring people back to Libya. This is a deliberate hands-off policy, condoned by the EU, leading to innocent people drowning”. Strik told media: “The cynical thing of course is that the EU is funding the Libyan coast guard,” adding: “We continue this whole perpetual cycle of abuse and crimes against humanity, although the EU says we want to break the business model of smugglers”. Under the headline “The EU’s secret weapon against refugees — time”, Researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University, Maurice Stierl describes how: “Delays in rescuing people at sea aren’t a European policy failure. They are a deliberate, cruel strategy”. Stierl, writes: “Over the last decade, and in order to prevent arrivals, European Union authorities have sought out ways to slow down rescue engagement while accelerating interceptions to Libya”. On 12 May, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a statement reiterating the situation and EU’s complicity: “In 2022, approximately 23,600 people were intercepted by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard and forcibly returned to Libya. In Libya, migrants are at constant risk of being arbitrarily detained and subjected to crimes against humanity according to the latest UN report. One of the victims is 17-year-old Asha who was rescued by Ocean Viking operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE on 1 April. The organisation has released her testimony on how she was “abandoned at the age of nine during Somalia’s civil war, then picked up by an abusive uncle” and fleeing alone to escape a forced marriage to an 83-year-old cousin spending three years in Libya, where she was imprisoned and tortured including in a prison run by mafias cooperating with Libyan authorities. Following a briefing at the UN Security Council by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, Lawyers for Justice in Libya, urged him to “do more to publicly state the gravity of human rights violations in Libya. Human trafficking alone does not capture this; these crimes may amount to Crimes Against Humanity and war crimes. Those responsible must be investigated before the ICC”. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in the period of 7 – 13 May 2023, 89 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya and the total in 2023 so far has passed 5,000.

Meanwhile, NGOs continue to warn of distress and save lives. MSF Sea reported on 16 May: “Following an alert from the Alarm Phone Geo Barents just rescued 26 people in distress on an unseaworthy boat located in international waters off Libya. Among them are one pregnant woman and eight children”. The following day, Louise Michel reported: “71 people rescued from boat in distress. Less than a day after being back at sea, our crew was informed by aircraft Colibri 2 from Pilotes Volontaires about a potential distress case”. The organisation who’s vessel MV Louise Michel has been blocked for 20 days by Italy following the last rescue operation, “for rescuing too many people”, further stated: “When our crew arrived they found 71 people on an overcrowded and unseaworthy rubber boat. All people are now safely aboard Louise Michel”. On 16 May, iuventa released a statement on the ongoing trial in Italy against members of their crew and others. According to the statement: “iuventa’s defence filed a request to the Italian Constitutional Court, challenging the legal basis of the criminal proceedings. This legal action questions the Italian and European legislation on “smuggling” cases, based on which more than 1,000 people are currently detained in Italy alone. Francesca Cancellaro, iuventa lawyer, said: “It’s time to rethink the whole discipline. As of today, this criminal case against individuals has taken on broader legal scope, extending beyond this singular case. This is a significant development for us as it fully reflects the nature of the charges, which were never only about the individual defendants but rather an attack on all who have engaged in similar conduct, are currently doing so, or may do so in the future”.

Amid increasing tension between Italy and France over migrant arrivals, French authorities have deployed drones at the French-Italian border. According to French authorities, drones are needed because of the “many opportunities to access the border in these areas,” and because “It is materially impossible to prevent people from crossing the border irregularly without using drones”. While the French prefect said that 12,607 migrants have been stopped at the French-Italian border around Menton since the beginning of the year marking a 40 per cent increase. However, the numbers are intensely debated by both authorities and media in the two neighboring EU member states. And Lawyers and associations assisting migrants at the border have denied that there have been significant increases. “In the summer, we usually give out about 300 meals a day, at the moment, the average is between 100 and 150,” stated a spokesperson for organisations at the border. Meanwhile, MSF is concerned about pushbacks at the Italy-France border at Ventimiglia. According to Sergio Di Dato, the head of the MSF mobile clinic assisting migrants in transit between Italy and France “On average, there are 20-25 pushbacks of people from France to Italy every day. There is concern that this number may rise after 150 additional border police were sent to the borders”. Di Dato added that the situation is complicated “also in Ventimiglia, where some of the migrants pushed back – women, children and the vulnerable – are taken care of by associations focusing on these things, while others end up under the Roia Bridge in camps without washing facilities and amid rats”. The policies of Italian PM Meloni were defined as “unjust, inhuman and ineffective” by Stéphane Séjourné – the leader of French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party on 10 May. However, on the same day, Meloni visited the Czech Republic with her counterpart, Petr Fiala stating: “On migrants, Meloni brings many proposals to Europe. We support Italy’s proposals, we have the same vision”. Fiala added that a “more active fight against traffickers” was needed while Meloni said, “Pursuing non-predatory cooperation with African countries is the most serious tool for tackling the migration crisis”. Such “non-predatory cooperation” was illustrated by Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Piantedosi commending Tunisia’s “significant effort” against irregular migration, during a visit to the North African country that is the scene of an ongoing crack-down on migrants. Piantedosi expressed his “full appreciation for the significant effort made by Tunisia to guard its maritime and land borders, to fight the networks of traffickers and confiscate their boats, to rescue migrants at sea”. According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), more than 200 people have drowned in a series of shipwrecks off Tunisia in 2023 and the Tunisian coast guard continues to pull back migrants and Tunisians attempting to reach Europe.

In Malta, a national monitoring committee overseeing the health and housing conditions of detained migrants has called for an immediate overhaul of two blocks of the notorious Ħal Far detention centre. The watchdog body called for the appointment of an architect to inspect and report on urgent works needed to safeguard the safety of detained persons of the Ħal Far ‘block A’ building and the ‘China House’ block built over 50 years ago. The board further reiterated points made in earlier reports including the need to ensure detained asylum seekers access to legal counsel, mental and healthcare, as well as outdoor areas among other issues. Reportedly, the observations were made in a report on the 2021 inspections of detention centres, tabled in the House of Representatives in Mid-May which are mandatory requirements under Malta’s adherence with the Council of Europe’s Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  After a visit in 2021, the council’s anti-torture Committee called on Malta to improve the treatment of detained migrants.

According to ECRE member, Aditus Foundation, on 10 May, the Court of Appeal delivered a second “important judgement on the status of holders of Specific Residence Authorisation (SRA)”. The cases concern Malta’s refusal to renew SRA statuses and strip the holders of their rights reducing them to undocumented migrants despite their integration into society. Aditus Foundation states: “the Appeal Court would have none of this. It laid down clear and strong principles” rejecting Malta’s appeals and restoring our clients’ legal status. The organisation further notes: “these two cases confirm what we have been telling Government for several years. Malta should recognise and reward those people who have made significant integration efforts to make Malta home”.

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