Migrant rescue NGOs at loggerheads over Italian code of conduct

MOAS has signed an Italian code of conduct on rescuing migrants at sea, but Médecins Sans Frontière says the rules put unnecessary limitations on NGOs

Médecins Sans Frontières has formally informed the Italian Ministry of the Interior that it would not be signing the Code of Conduct for NGOs operating rescue ships on the Mediterranean.

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

“Although we are unable to sign this code of conduct in its current form, MSF already respects several provisions that are not within the remit of our core concerns, including financial transparency,” said Annemarie Loof, operations manager.

“MSF will continue to operate its search and rescue activities under the coordination of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome and in accordance with all relevant international and maritime laws.”

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.

MSF said several commitments included in the Code of Conduct could result in a decrease in the efficiency and capacity of the current search and rescue response with dire humanitarian consequences.

The NGO said rules limiting the transfers of rescued people at sea from one ship to the other was unnecessary, and that forcing boats to deliver people rescued at sea to disembarkation points would lead to a decrease in the presence of rescue vessels in the search and rescue zone.

“A reduction in the number of rescue vessels would weaken an already insufficient search and rescue capacity, resulting in an increase in mass drownings,” MSF said.

The organisation also said the presence of armed police officers on board and the commitment for humanitarians to collect evidence would be in breach of fundamental humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality.”

On the other hand, the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station has agreed to sign the Code of Conduct.

“Our mission has always been to mitigate the loss of life at sea, and this document allows us to continue to do so,” MOAS founder Christopher Catrambone said on signing the Italian code of conduct. “MOAS signed this document in solidarity with the Italian government and its people, the only ones in Europe who are committed every day to allow organizations like ours to fulfil our humanitarian mission.”

Catrambone that if signing the Code of Conduct was the only way to enable the NGO to save lives at sea, “then MOAS cannot and should not hold back”.

Catrambone also said most of the requests included in the final document submitted by the Italian government to NGOs refer to “practices and modus operandi that have characterized MOAS’s operational set-up since its foundation in 2014” and therefore did not require an excessive effort on the part of the organization.

“Each search-and-rescue organization has its own goals and prerogatives, though we all pursue the same mission; that of saving lives at sea. MOAS has always believed that ‘No one deserves to die at sea’, and is intent on continuing to carry out this belief with all the legitimate instruments available to it,” Catrambone said.

“Our signature on this document has no political connotation: we are a humanitarian organization, and as such an independent one. We will go on with our efforts and remain grateful to the Italian government for allowing us to continue doing what we know best to do: prevent the Mediterranean from becoming a graveyard.”

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