Tuesday

20th Oct 2020

Opinion

Italy's action against NGOs is wrong

  • Will hundreds more need to perish, as they did after Mare Nostrum ceased to operate, to prove these policies wrong? (Photo: EEAS)

Last week, as health workers, volunteers and police officers in southern Italian ports scrambled to identify, assist and send over 10,000 newly arrived migrants to reception facilities, the Italian government threatened to stop allowing NGO rescue ships to disembark migrants at its ports.

The EU and its member states acknowledged that Italy’s capacity to host those attempting the sea crossing from Libya is reaching its limits, but did very little to help beyond pledging some additional funds and endorsing an Italian proposal to draft a code of conduct for the NGOs.

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Some governments, including the German and Belgian ones, stated publicly that they would not take in any of the rescued migrants, while Austria threatened to send its army to seal the border with Italy.

The Italian government is right to claim that other EU states are failing to provide meaningful support by taking in some of the people who are arriving, and that it is currently managing the main source of irregular migration to Europe single-handedly.

However, Italy has chosen to respond to a real problem with the wrong solution.

The code of conduct lays out a series of obligations for the rescue groups, including allowing investigative police on board at all times - a clear breach of the principle of neutrality upheld by humanitarian NGOs - as well as a prohibition on entering Libyan territorial waters and not obstructing the Libyan coast guard’s rescue operations.

NGOs that do not comply are threatened with not being granted access to Italy’s ports.

NGOs worry that the code of conduct is an attempt to either ensure that they cease their operations altogether or to limit their ability to witness and document abuses perpetrated by the EU-trained and equipped Libyan coast guard.

Over the past few weeks, such incidents include Libyan officers being filmed shooting at migrant boats.

The code has also been criticised by the UN, which says it is unnecessary as international maritime law and specific guidelines issued jointly by the International Maritime Organization and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) already apply.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, said at a recent event in Brussels that “the code should apply to all actors, not just the NGOs, including commercial vessels which switch off their transponders [radar identification systems], to avoid being asked to carry out rescue operations, and Nato ships, which routinely ignore distress calls”.

The Italian coast guard have privately voiced concerns that, if the NGOs cease operating, they will not have the capacity to save the thousands of people risking their lives every day to reach Italy and that there will be countless more deaths on an already deadly route.

If the Italian authorities try to implement the code of conduct, migrants and refugees in desperate conditions, who have endured abuse and violence in Libya, and risked their lives in the Mediterranean, would be forced to endure additional days at sea while states tussle over which port they should be taken to – a frequent occurrence in the early 2000s.

And if any other EU country did allow some migrants to disembark – an unlikely event – it would be much further away from the waters off the coast of Libya than Italy.

The decision could also violate international law, under which seafarers must take rescued persons to the nearest "safe port" – not just from a logistical point of view, but where their rights would not be violated as well.

These provisions currently bar ships in the Central Mediterranean, where all rescue operations are coordinated by the Italian coast guard, from taking migrants not just to Libya, but also to Egypt, Tunisia and other non-European countries in the region.

The rest of the EU should step up to help Italy host the migrants and asylum seekers, but there is little willingness across the bloc to do this.

A decision by the EU in 2015 to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers arriving in Greece and Italy across the bloc has proved difficult to implement, with less than 7,300 transferred from Italy – out of an overall target of 35,000 – with some Eastern European countries refusing to take in any of the migrants.

Opposing coalitions of member states mean that discussions on reforming the EU’s dysfunctional asylum system have stalled, with no agreement on the right balance between what the EU refers to as “responsibility” (to assess asylum claims in the first European country migrants enter) and “solidarity” (redistributing the asylum seekers).

Policymakers in Brussels grumble that the men, women and children arriving in Italy are not “real” refugees, but economic migrants – despite the fact that 43% of them are being granted protection on asylum or humanitarian grounds.

Shifting the burden of overcoming the political stalemate at EU level onto the NGOs is not the solution, nor is the one line of action which EU states currently agree on – outsourcing efforts to curb migration flows to Europe to the likes of Libya, Niger or, further afield, the regime in Sudan.

Proponents of the so-called “externalisation” of EU migration and asylum policies to non-European countries are oblivious to human rights concerns, regarding the horrific treatment of migrants in Libya or the loss of lives in the Nigerien desert as smugglers resort to alternative routes to avoid detection.

What they do seek, however, are quick-impact fixes which reduce migrant arrivals in Europe. Given that these efforts have not paid off so far, they argue, stopping rescue NGOs from operating will discourage migrants from trying to cross the Mediterranean – a line based on the unproven assumption that the NGOs, like the Italian navy’s Mare Nostrum operation in 2014, are acting as a “pull factor”.

Will hundreds more need to perish, as they did after Mare Nostrum ceased to operate, to prove them wrong?

Giulia Lagana is senior EU migration and asylum analyst at Open Society European Policy Institute

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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