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25th Mar 2019

Italy imposing new rules on NGO sea rescues

  • Italy is preparing a 'code of conduct' for NGO rescues at sea (Photo: iom.int)

The European Commission, France and Germany back Italian plans to draw up a "code of conduct" for NGOs unloading people rescued at sea to Italian ports.

Interior ministers from those three nations, along with the EU migration commissioner, announced the proposal on Monday (3 July), following Italian threats last week of preventing charity boats from entering ports in Italy, after some 12,000 people arrived over the span of a few days.

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An EU commission spokeswoman in Brussels said the code would aim to better coordinate rescues at sea. "This is about better coordination of operations conducted in the Mediterranean for search and rescue," she said.

But broader questions remain about the code of conduct's intent, given that Mediterranean sea rescues are coordinated and carried out by the Italian coastguard.

What the code will consist of also remains unclear, especially since Italy's interior minister, Marco Minniti, has called for other EU states to open up their ports.

On Sunday, Minniti told Il Messaggero newspaper that "something is not working" if refugees are only taken to Italy and not to other EU states.

Italian media outlet ilsole24ore.com had also reported on Sunday that the code would ban NGOs from conducting rescues inside Libyan territorial waters.

His under-secretary, Domenico Manzione, earlier this month accused some NGOs of disobeying orders and letting people off at ports that are not equipped to handle the numbers.

"We need to make sure that those who do become active in the Mediterranean, play by the same rules and follow orders," said Manzione.

The three interior ministers had met in Paris on Sunday to discuss the code of conduct ahead of a gathering of all 28 interior ministers at the end of this week in Estonia.

That meeting will be fed, in part, by an "action plan," which is set to be unveiled by the EU commission on Tuesday in Strasbourg.

Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, had appealed for help to better manage the arrivals, with over 83,000 having so far disembarked from Libya's coastline this year.

Italy is also reportedly pushing to ease rules on who can become eligible for the EU's relocation scheme.

The scheme distributes asylum seekers, of nationalities that have a 75 percent or greater of obtaining asylum, to other EU states from Italy and Greece. Italy wants that percentage rate lowered.

Anti-NGO perceptions

But the message appears to be part of a broader anti-NGO sentiment following a Financial Times (FT) newspaper article in December that alleged charities were somehow colluding with people smugglers.

The paper later issued a correction for having "overstated the content of confidential briefings," which were provided by the EU's border agency, Frontex.

The Forensic Oceanography branch at the University of London had also produced an extensive study that debunks arguments that NGOs operating near the Libyan coast lure people to take boats towards Italy.

Meanwhile, the EU and its member states continue to wrangle over how to reform internal asylum rules, which remained deadlocked.

The emphasis has since shifted towards preventing people from leaving for Europe.

In late June at an EU summit in Brussels, heads of state and government had said they would step up cooperation with countries around Africa and aim to send more people back.

But even that call was met with scepticism from EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who told press that few had met their financial commitments for a trust fund for Africa.

Of the €1.8 billion promised by EU states, only €89 million had been paid out as of late last month. The bulk of that money is supposed to go to economic development and migration management.

"Norway and Switzerland are pledging more than three-quarters of the members of the European Union. This is not acceptable," said Juncker, at the time.

EU ready to help Italy in NGO dispute

Italy's threat to stop NGOs from unloading rescued migrants at sea will be discussed next week among interior ministers, amid broader internal political stakes ahead of general elections.

Opinion

Italy's action against NGOs is wrong

With the code of conduct Italian authorities are trying to impose on NGOs that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean, people would be forced to endure additional days at sea while states tussle over which port to send them too.

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