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28th Feb 2024

Italy demands people rescued at sea go to Tunisia, say NGOs

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Italy is demanding civilian rescue ships disembark people in Tunisia, as Rome clamps down on their operations in the Mediterranean Sea, according to NGOs.

The pressure comes as three charity vessels have been detained by Italian authorities in the past few days and amid an on-going Tunisian-state sanctioned violent crackdown against black migrants.

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A joint statement released by NGOs on Monday (28 August) said that Italian authorities have repeatedly instructed their vessels to request a place of safety in Tunisia for people rescued at sea.

"Disembarking rescued people on its shores would be a violation of international law," said the statement.

Last week, more than 4,000 migrants fled Tunisia by sea, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). "Most had been living and working for more than a year in Tunisia," said Vincent Cochetel, a UNHCR official specialising in the region.

"If they would have felt safe, they would not have embarked on this dangerous journey," he said, on X formally known as Twitter.

The exodus follows an EU deal with Tunisia, a so-called "strategic partnership" over the summer, that seeks to prevent migrants from taking boats towards Italy.

That deal came with more €100m in EU funds to combat undocumented migration and was signed by the European Commission at a ceremony attended by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni.

Italy, under her leadership, has also imposed further restrictions on charity vessels that requires them to disembark people at distant ports in Italy.

They must also only perform one rescue, posing ethical and moral dilemmas given there may be numerous boats in distress.

NGOs that don't comply face up to €10,000 fines and may have their vessels detained for 20 days.

So far this year, there have been eight cases of detentions of NGO vessels in Italy.

The most recent include the civilian vessels Sea Watch's Aurora, the Open Arms and Sea-Eye 4. Both Aurora and Sea-Eye 4 are detained for the second time this year.

Open Arms, in a statement last week, said they were fined and given a 20-day detention order after having rescued 196 people in three rescue operations in international waters of the central Mediterranean.

"Rescuing women, children, and men in danger is not an option; it is a moral and legal duty," they said

Similar grievances were made by Sea-Eye 4 and Aurora.

Aurora said they had rescued 72 people and were unable to disembark in Trapani, an Italian port, because they were running low on fuel.

They had instead asked to disembark at Lampedusa, an Italian island, which was much closer to their location.

"After repeatedly indicating that Trapani was factually impossible to reach, the Italian Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre prompted the Aurora to request a port from Tunisia," said the NGO.

Rebecca Berker, head of mission on the Aurora, said they had no other option but to sail to Lampedusa.

The decision led to a fine and having their boat detained.

Over 2,200 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year, the highest since 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN body.

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