Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Draft EU migration deal has fatal flaw, warns ship captain

  • The Sea Watch 3 remains docked in Italy (Photo: Sea Watch)

The recent draft agreement in Malta among a handful of EU states to help rescued migrants may actually force NGO rescue boats to break international law, according to Carola Rackete, captain of the Sea Watch 3 charity boat.

Speaking to MEPs on Thursday (3 October), Rackete warned the plan includes instructions that could require rescue boats such as her own to return people to Libya.

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"I am in fact actually waiting for the moment where the Libyan Coast Guard will give me an instruction I cannot comply with," said the 31-year old captain.

She was speaking on the six-year anniversary when over 360 migrants drowned off the coast of Italy's Lampedusa island.

EU interior minsters are meeting in Luxembourg next week to thrash out the details of the plan, which requires all vessels engaged in rescue operations to comply with instructions "given by the competent rescue coordination centre."

That means NGO boats operating in international waters and within Libya's vast search and rescue zone, are likely to have to take instructions from a country gripped by war.

"That directive will basically be telling me or any other ship captain to become complicit in breaking international law and bringing people back to Libya," she also told reporters in Brussels.

Last month, a rescued migrant was shot dead after being returned to shore by the EU-funded and trained Libyan Coast Guard.

The draft agreement between Italy, Malta, France, and Germany aims to put an end to a situation where migrants are stuck for weeks at a time on rescue boats as EU states haggle over who should host them.

The European Commission has so far had to step in some 14 times to help coordinate disembarkation, involving over 1,000 people who have or are in the process of being transferred to other EU states and Norway, since June last year.

Over the summer, Rackete and 53 rescued migrants were themselves left stranded on Sea Watch 3 for 17 days until she docked at the Italian port in Lampedusa without authorisation.

She was arrested but later released following a court order, possibly facing years in prison if convicted.

"As we speak, I am still under investigation, two criminal investigations in Italy for having saved lives in danger at sea," she said.

Salvini-era decree

Rackete pointed out criminal investigations against people who help migrants and refugees is not limited to Italy, noting some 160 people across the EU are facing similar threats.

The European Commission has so far declined to speak out against an Italian security decree, passed under Italy's former interior minister Matteo Salvini, to fine such NGO rescue boats.

But Michael Shotter, a senior EU commission official on migration who was speaking alongside Rackete, said saving people at sea is a legal requirement that "cannot be criminalised."

When pressed to explain what the commission is doing to address the criminalisation of humanitarian aid, Shotter admitted they was a lack of clarity on the EU legal framework.

"A meeting took place in 2018 and we also had a discussion with national prosecutors at Eurojust and earlier this week we had a second meeting to take stock of the latest research findings on this issue," he said.

EU mute on new Italian decree to fine NGO boats

In 2013, the European Commission declared ships that help migrants in distress would not face sanctions. Now - six years later - Italy's government endorses a decree to impose fines up to €50,000 for rescue boats docking in Italian ports.

France, Italy want 'automatic' distribution of migrants

French president Emmanuel Macron is pressing for an automated distribution of rescued migrants at sea - but also stands accused of tightening asylum rules in his own country as a response to the far-right.

EU migrant boat plan fails to get extra support

Only seven out of 28 EU states have so far supported a draft plan to disembark and relocate migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean, following a meeting in Luxembourg.

Finnish EU presidency brief broadly offshores migration

A Finnish EU presidency paper on migration, designed to feed into the new European Commission, lays out a vision to prevent irregular migration, forced displacement, and boost cooperation on return and readmission.

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