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9th Dec 2021

NGOs divided by Italy's new rescue code

  • Over 95,000 people have arrived via the Mediterranean this year. (Photo: EEAS)

Five aid groups have refused to sign Italy’s code of conduct for organisations that run migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean, the Italian interior ministry said on Monday (31 July).

Three other organisations backed the new rules, which include a ban on sending light signals that may help migrants and a ban on transferring migrants to other ships.

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One of the organisations that refused to sign the code of conduct, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said in a letter on Monday that they already respected several provisions, such as financial transparency.

MSF said that the code of conduct could lead to a decrease in the efficiency and capacity of the search and rescue response in the Mediterranean, leading to more deaths.

"Proposals - in particular the one stating that vessels engaged in rescue must disembark survivors to a place of safety as a rule instead of transferring to other ships - present unnecessary limitations to the means at our disposal today,” said the organisation, which noted that it had saved 16,000 people.

"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 warned, adding that it observes all the maritime and international rules.

Save the Children did sign up to the code of conduct, saying that it already complied with most of the rules.

The Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms also agreed to the code, while Germany's Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet, and France's SOS Mediterranee abstained.

One of the issues they were concerned with was the obligation to accept police officers on board their vessels, which some organisations say interferes with the humanitarian principle of neutrality. Italy argues the officers are needed to root out traffickers hiding among migrants.

The Italian ministry said that all the organisations not participating in the scheme will be outside the “organised system of sea rescue”, and will face “all the consequences”, without going into details.

This year, 95,000 people arrived at Italy’s coast, and more than 2,378 people died on the journey in the Mediterranean, according to UN data.

In the first six months of this year, more than 30 percent of all rescue operations were carried out by NGOs.

Rome is concerned that the presence of NGOs encourages smugglers and migrants to embark on the perilous journey.

Italy had previously threatened to shut its ports to NGOs that did not sign up to the code of conduct.

Rome has also secured the backing of the the EU for the new rules. The European Commission has said the code would aim to better coordinate rescues at sea.

The 12-point code includes a ban on crossing into Libyan territorial waters and calls for cooperation with the police to investigate human trafficking.

But while NGO boats will be banned from Libyan waters, the Italian navy is getting ready to enter them.

Last week, Italy’s government agreed to send naval support to Libyan waters after a request was submitted by the UN-backed government in Tripoli, in its battle against people smugglers.

Rome’s efforts to curb the NGOs’ activities at sea have also been fuelled by an increasingly widespread perception that the organisations are aiding smugglers, something the aid groups have repeatedly denied.

Aside from human rights groups, the UN’s children's agency, Unicef, has also condemned Italy’s code of conduct. It said earlier this month that the new rules put children's lives at risk.

EU backs Italy on NGO rescues

The European Commission has said that the EU and Italy merely want to “better organise” migrant rescues in the Central Mediterranean.

Italy to impose tough rules on NGOs

Italian authorities will release a code of conduct for NGOs, which prevents them, among other things, from entering Libyan territorial waters. A draft copy of the code says NGOs will be banned from Italian ports on failure to comply.

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.

EU and Africa leaders in migrant talks

France is hosting a mini-summit on Monday in Paris with leaders from Germany, Italy, Spain, Chad, Niger and Libya. The talks will likely cover broad discussions on migration, security and development.

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