Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Italy seizes NGO boat and starts Libyan mission

Italy's coastguard has seized a migrant rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea, which is suspected of aiding illegal immigration from Libya, and sent patrol boats to Libya's waters on Wednesday (2 August) in an effort to curb the influx of migrants.

The boat Iuventa, operated by Jugend Rettet, a German aid group that did not sign up to Italy’s new code of conduct designed for NGOs, was escorted to the Italian island of Lampedusa by coastguard vessels.

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"We received no information about investigation against us from official sites. Our crew was guaranteed that this is a standard process,” Jugend Rettet tweeted a few hours after the ship was impounded.

In a subsequent Facebook post, the group said it is very sorry that it cannot operate in the search and rescue zone, where migrants have been attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa into Europe.

Italy’s Ansa news agency reported that the move was ordered by a judge from the western Sicilian town of Trapani, as a "preventative seizure", and is related to a probe into "alleged aiding" of illegal immigration.

Ambrogio Cartosio, chief prosecutor in Trapani, was quoted by Reuters to have said that his investigation into Jugend Rettet was ongoing and no one has been charged yet.

"The evidence is serious," he said, adding: "We have evidence of encounters between traffickers, who escorted illegal immigrants to the Iuventa, and members of the boat's crew.”

However, Cartosio said there was no indication that Jugend Rettet had received money from Libya-based traffickers.

"It would be fantasy to say there was a coordinated plan between the NGOs and the Libyan traffickers," he said.

Earlier this week, Italy asked some nine NGOs, active in rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea, to sign a code of conduct that was backed by the European Commission.

Five, including the German NGO, refused, saying they are following international and maritime laws, and the new rules could lead to more deaths at sea.

On its website, Jugend Rettet says that it saved thousands of lives in 2016. The group was founded in 2015 in response to the refugee crisis.

One of the new requirements for NGOs is to have an armed police officer on board.

Libyan patrol

In an effort to curb trafficking, Italy's parliament on Wednesday authorised a limited naval mission to help Libya's coastguard curb migrant flows.

Rome sent two ships for logistics and patrols into Libyan waters, in order to to help the Libyan coastguard in patrolling the sea.

Italy initially hoped to send six ships, but had to downsize the mission following objections from the UN-backed administration in Tripoli.

Italy hopes that sending migrants back to Libya will have a significant deterrent effect, as over 600,000 people have crossed the sea since 2014.

The move was criticised by rights groups, who argue that Italy is sending migrants back to inhumane conditions and possible torture.

"After years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour," Human Rights Watch's Judith Sunderland said.

Last week, EU ministers extended the mandate of the EU's Sophia naval mission - aimed at combating trafficking in the central Mediterranean - and debated whether to allow the mission to work inside Libyan territorial waters.

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's 'nuclear option' on migrants unravels

Media has reported that Italy may issue visas to migrants to allow them to travel further north. But the plan is unlikely to work due to EU rules underpinning such decisions.

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.

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