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Italy’s ‘traps’ to stop migrant rescues: ‘It’s illegal and time will tell’

That morning, May 9, Mohammed, barely nine months old, was the first to be brought to safety. More than two hundred people trying to cross the central Mediterranean in two rubber boats have been rescued by Doctors Without Borders.

The following night, after hours of searching in the dark, the NGO managed to find another thousand migrants traveling in two drift boats. On May 11, two days after the start of the operation, another hundred people were rescued in Maltese waters, whose competent authorities did not show any initiative to help the unstable wooden rafts, according to the NGO.

At the end of the year, with traffic up 50% on the central Mediterranean route off the coast of Libya, a rescue like MSF is what Italy’s far-right government is trying to avoid with a recent decree. He is trying to suppress the work of rescue organizations.

The first decree of the Italian government of 2023 establishes, among other measures, that NGOs must immediately request a landing port from the moment of the first rescue, which they cannot help several ships; Encourages organizations to collect data on potential asylum seekers on board themselves, information that they must provide to the flag country for processing; and establishes administrative fines of up to 100,000 euros for those who do not comply with the norm.

“Italy is playing with marked cards,” says Inigo Miangos, president of the Basque NGO Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario, owner of Aita Mari. Mijangos points to the “double trap” of the new “code of conduct”: “Italy cannot in any way dictate what to do on a ship flying the flag of another country and in international waters, so it provides its own framework. which will justify a possible sanction.”

The non-governmental organizations participating in the consultation respond similarly: there is already international legislation, approved by all states, that regulates behavior at sea. What if, en route to a designated port, a humanitarian vessel detects another vessel or receives a message that a nearby vessel is in danger? The law mandates mitigation and failure to do so is punishable. It will be necessary to observe, say the organizations, how Italy will respond when a similar incident occurs.

Collecting information from potential asylum seekers is another key point of the new decree. Given the lack of clarification of this mandate, the organizations do not know how the Italian government intends the organization to carry out the work assigned to the administration on the high seas. “It doesn’t make sense to turn ships into UNHCR delegations,” says Oscar Kemps, president of Open Arms, almost pointedly.

Although the Italian standard does not specify how this task can be carried out, nor does it offer resources to organizations, NGOs highlight the difficulties of getting on board a sufficient legal and interpretation team to receive applications from potential refugees. In addition, the survivors arrive on the ship very nervous and tired. At that point, their lives have just been saved after a difficult immigration process that is often fraught with traumatic events. Experts emphasize that you should give them time and quiet space to explain their reasons for flight.

The aspect that most hinders the work of rescue organizations does not appear in the written decree: the authorization of the port to land in very remote places, which forces the crew to set aside several extra days of navigation, resulting in the exhaustion of rescued people. Loss of time due to possible warning of vessels at risk and increased costs.

“We carry very vulnerable people on board who suffer all kinds of suffering and require medical and psychological support. Not only is it cruel to prolong this pain with extra days at sea, but it can cause real health and safety issues for these people. Dehydration after several days of dizziness and vomiting, which is very normal at sea, can even lead to death,” says Axel Steyer, member of the board of directors of German Lifeline.

Italy reversed former interior minister Matteo Salvini’s closed-ports policy with a melon at one of its “remote ports”. For reasons of saturation in the reception centers of Sicily or in the southern part of the boot, it no longer prohibits landing, but allows them in remote areas on the northern coast of the country.

“This way, time and fuel are saved and they keep the boats out of the search area as much as possible, thus preventing new rescuers and witnesses at sea,” Kemps continues. In short, it’s about adding bureaucratic hurdles to undermine the “economic muscle” of humanitarian organizations, Miganjos adds.

This policy is not exclusive to the Italian government. Two Spanish-flagged rescue ships, the Open Arms and the Aita Mari, have complained that their vessels are subject to more stringent and more frequent controls than other types of fleet. Between 2018 and 2019, its ships were blocked in Spain for months by order of the Spanish Ministry of Public Works.

The new regulation does not surprise rescue NGOs, as it is interpreted as an extension of policies implemented by various Italian governments, often in cooperation with the EU: before Salvini’s arrival in July. In 2017, the Italian government promoted a code of conduct to control NGO operations at sea, which Kemps said was already being implemented, and which only served to give the appearance of disorderly conduct to rescue ships.

Then came the controversial and radical measures of Matteo Salvini, then Minister of the Interior, who tried to close all access to lifeboats, which he punished with unjustified kidnappings, which he extended over time, exhausting the deadlines for bureaucratic responses. Drom put Salvini on trial in Palermo, accused of “kidnapping” among other charges after he prevented 163 people from disembarking aboard the Open Arms for nearly 20 days in August 2019.

The work of NGOs has not been easy since Salvini left as interior minister, days before the new far-right government came to power, according to SMH’s Mijango: “There was no quarter and although the language changed, the pandemic became an excuse: imposing large quarantines and waiting times excess.

Mijangos talks about the Italian government’s “study”. “He chose the worst of the above,” he adds. According to him, while the sanctions were carried out through criminal proceedings, now they are carried out through administrative channels. This change has two consequences, claim non-governmental organizations. The economic costs generated have an immediate effect and, in turn, are less public, less visible. Smear campaigns also affect the image of organizations that depend on donations.

Now is the time to wait, the organizations say, for Italy to implement the regulation, the first disagreement between the ordinance and international law, which the captains continue to rely on. “In the short term they (the Italian government) will win with this resolution, but they won’t be able to do it in the long term because it’s completely illegal and time will prove us right,” says Kemps.

Source: El Diario





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