Italy’s code of conduct for refugee rescue ships ‘threatens thousands of lives’, charities warn

Warning comes after more than 2,300 asylum seekers drowned trying to reach Europe in 2017 so far

Paul Cocks
27 July 2017, 11:55am
MOAS to the rescue: Migrants find a helping hand at sea
MOAS to the rescue: Migrants find a helping hand at sea
Italian plans to impose a code of conduct on charities rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea “threaten thousands of lives”, humanitarian groups have warned.

A draft of the code leaked to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) would force the ships to allow police officers on board and return immediately to port, rather than transferring migrants to other ships.

NGOs were to meet Italian authorities in Rome last night to be informed of the document being pushed by Italy.

The rules would also ban rescuers from entering Libyan territorial waters, using lights to signal their location to boats at imminent risk of sinking or communicating with smugglers by phone.

The document threatened to bar any NGOs who do not sign the code from Italian ports, forcing them to journey further, carrying passengers frequently including pregnant women, torture victims and infants.

It comes as Italy’s pleas for support from fellow EU nations in redistributing around 200,000 migrants in overflowing government reception centres have fallen on deaf ears, amid waning political will to support refugees.

More than 2,300 migrants have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe so far this year, mainly on the treacherous route between Libya and Italy, while 105,200 asylum seekers mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh and Syria have made it to shore.

Humanitarian ships have become increasingly instrumental in rescue operations, picking up more than a third of all migrants rescued in 2017 compared to one per cent in 2014, and are struggling to cope with the summer peak.

Jugend Rettet, which is among the groups operating rescue ships off the coast of Libya, said that forcing vessels to return to land to disembark migrants would take them out of the search and rescue zone “where they are urgently needed”.

NGOs are deployed to boats in distress by commanders in Rome, with smaller ships frequently transferring rescued refugees to larger vessels so they can continue rescues.

“This code of conduct is a real threat for thousands of people,” said Jugend Rettet’s Isa Grahn, adding that it was also “not an option” for the group to have a police officer on board its ship. “Humanitarian work has to be separated from political aims and be protected from political or military intervention.”

Save the Children also operates a rescue mission in the Mediterranean. “We will engage constructively with Italian authorities on any code of conduct that is fully aligned with our mandate to save lives and with International Maritime law,” a spokesperson said. “Save the Children operates in line with its humanitarian imperative to save lives, in compliance with international maritime law and in full transparency and cooperation with relevant authorities.”

Vincent Cochetel, the UN Refugee Agency’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean route, said that any code of conduct must be imposed for all actors – not just NGOs.

Speaking at a report launch in Brussels earlier this month, he said that Rome’s maritime rescue coordination centre (MRCC) reviews all ships available to respond to distress calls but “often we see shipping companies switching off their GPS systems in order not to rescue people. Can we have a code of conduct also for these shipping companies?” 

“NGOs are out there in the Mediterranean rescuing people because the EU is not,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.  “Given the scale of tragedies at sea and the horrific abuses migrants and asylum seekers face in Libya, the EU should work with Italy to enhance robust search and rescue in the waters off Libya, not limit it.”

Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office, said the draft code of conduct would “risk endangering thousands of lives by impeding rescue boats from accessing the perilous waters near Libya”. 

She characterised the proposals as part of a “concerted smear campaign” against NGO rescue ships, which has culminated in a far-right group calling itself Defend Europe sending its own vessel to disrupt operations in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Right-wing politicians have made persistent claims that aid agencies are aiding or even directly colluding with Libyan smugglers, without citing evidence, despite two parliamentary committee inquiries in Italy finding no evidence of misconduct.

Academic studies have found no link between rescues and rising Mediterranean crossings and deaths, while a parliamentary report in the UK branded the EU’s anti-smuggling mission a “failure”.

The House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee found that Operation Sophia, launched to replace the Italian government’s rescue efforts in 2015, “has not in any meaningful way deterred the flow of migrants, disrupted the smugglers’ networks, or impeded the business of people smuggling”.

The committee also concluded that the mission was driving refugee deaths by destroying smugglers’ boats and forcing them to switch to unseaworthy dinghies that are launched en masse.

The Lords report said a naval mission was the “wrong tool” to gather intelligence on land-based smuggling networks leading to the Libyan coast, which is now the main departure point for boats heading towards Europe. It also raised concern over reports of “serious abuses of the human rights of migrants by the Libyan coastguard”, which is being trained by the UK and equipped by the EU as it seeks to gradually unburden itself of responsibility for rescues.

Recent incidents include a near miss between a Libyan coastguard patrol ship and a vessel operated by German charity Sea-Watch, gunfire during a rescue and widespread allegations of the beating, torture and robbery of refugees forced back to shore in violation of international law.

The UN has warned of widespread torture, arbitrary detention, rape, forced labour and “slave auctions” in Libya, where people smugglers have set up a lucrative business in the chaos of its continuing civil war.

A migrant taken aboard a rescue vessel after daring his life at sea
A migrant taken aboard a rescue vessel after daring his life at sea
The dawn of non-governmental search and rescue missions

The large number of deaths at sea has turned the Central Mediterranean into the theatre of a complex humanitarian emergency. Both large international NGOs and small local charities have long played a key role in addressing the suffering caused by large-scale migrations. The direct involvement of humanitarian organisations in the provision of Mediterranean SAR, however, is a more recent phenomenon. 

The German NGO Cap Anamur was the first organisation conducting a migrant rescue operation in the Strait of Sicily in 2004. Upon disembarking migrants to Italy, Cap Anamur’s personnel were prosecuted for abetting illegal immigration, which forced the NGO to suspend its activities. Italy’s approach to migrant rescuing changed by October 2013, when its navy launched the large-scale SAR Operation Mare Nostrum. One year after, Mare Nostrum was replaced by the Frontex Operation Triton, a mission focusing primarily on border control which only operated within 30 miles from Italian territorial waters. 

The growing number of casualties along the Central Mediterranean migratory route, in combination with Italy’s commitment to allow for the disembarkation in its ports of all migrants saved offshore Libya, has provided new possibilities for NGOs’ involvement in SAR.

Non-governmental SAR operations restarted with the creation of the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), which in the summer of 2014 launched the first non-governmental rescue operations from a reconverted fishing vessel, equipped with drones and manned with former Maltese navy personnel. 

By May 2016, MOAS was joined by the operational branches of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) headquartered in Barcelona and Brussels and the German NGO Sea-Watch. In 2016, six other NGOs – SOS-Méditerranée, Sea-Eye, Pro-Activa Open Arms, Cadus, Jugend Rettet, the Boat Refugee Foundation and Save the Children – also started SAR missions offshore Libya. 

NGOs’ humanitarian operations offshore Libya are based on two different models. MOAS, MSF, SOS-Méditerranée and Save conduct fully-fledged SAR missions that include rescuing migrants in distress and transporting them to the Italian port indicated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome. 

Organisations with smaller boats, such as Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye, Jugend Rettet, Pro-Activa and the Boat Refugee Foundation, by contrast, focus on patrolling international waters offshore Western Libya, providing migrants with lifejackets and only temporarily hosting them aboard until they are transferred on a larger vessel shuttling them to Italy.

Paul Cocks joined MaltaToday after having spent years working in newspapers with The Times...