The Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini this month once again emphatically served notice that Italian ports are closed to civil society migrant search and rescue organizations.
His tweet primarily targeted the crew of German NGO Sea-Watch, that was returning to the search and rescue area off the Libyan coast after nearly two and a half months in the French port of Marseille.
???? La nave Ong #SeaWatch3 (bandiera olandese) sta navigando nel Mediterraneo in direzione Libia. Avviso ai naviganti: non pensino di aiutare scafisti, imbarcare immigrati e dirigersi verso l’Italia perché verranno fermati, con OGNI MEZZO lecito consentito. #portichiusi pic.twitter.com/LL2lq48Omb
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) May 13, 2019
Six days after Salvini’s threats, Sea-Watch successfully completed the disembarkation of 65 migrants in the Italian port of Lampedusa on May 19. After a stand-off with the Italian government, the NGO was initially permitted to disembark families and children only. A further 47 remained in a state of bureaucratic purgatory as the stand-off continued until the Italian government allowed them to disembark after another two days stranded at sea.
As countries work to hinder rescue efforts further, the stand-off process between NGOs and E.U. member states have become a troubling yet increasingly common occurrence for search and rescue organizations operating in the Mediterranean.
The recent episode with Sea-Watch comes as Salvini seeks to push through a new decree that would formalize the closure of Italian ports to civil society search and rescue organizations, and see rescue groups fined up to €5,500 ($6,150) for each migrant they disembark on to Italian soil. Italian-flagged vessels would also face revocation or suspension of their license for the transport of rescued people on the move to Italy.
Despite the clear and obvious indications that this legislation violates well-established international and maritime law, Salvini has justified the policy on the grounds that it is both “necessary” and “urgent.” The U.N. challenged Salvini’s position, claiming it to be a clear violation of international law and “yet another attempt to criminalize search and rescue operations.”
Meanwhile, between 10 and 12 May, at least 70 migrants died at sea while another 240 were forcibly returned to Libya by the E.U.-funded Libyan Coast Guard.
Criminalizing Search and Rescue Operations
Recent developments are emblematic of the broader efforts in recent years to criminalize humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
For instance, the crew of the German NGO Jugend Rettet are currently pending criminal indictments in Italy for their work off the coast of Libya. The recently founded Italian NGO Mediterranea has faced multiple administrative detentions in Italy during their short tenure at sea, while the German Sea-Watch has encountered similar detentions at the hands of both the Dutch and Italian governments in recent months.
Meanwhile, the Spanish organization Proactiva Open Arms is currently blocked from returning to the search and rescue area in the southern Mediterranean. Conversely, there is also the ongoing case waged by the Maltese government against the German NGO Mission Lifeline which has lasted nearly a year and means the MV Lifeline vessel remains moored in Malta’s capital Valletta.
These cases, along with others, represent an unsettling trend in the concerted efforts by E.U. states to criminalize rescue and solidarity at sea, which produce bureaucratic blockades to obstruct civil society search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean.
Refusal of Responsibility
The most recent move by the Italian government is part of a broader tendency by the E.U. to close its eyes and turn its back on the situation in the Mediterranean, while conditions in Libya rapidly deteriorate.
Negligence in the area of search and rescue reflects oversight of the broader responsibilities of E.U. states such as Italy, as responsibility for longer-standing legacies of historical engagement in the Middle East and North Africa has been refused. Other states, such as Malta, have even gone so far to charge migrants as pirates.
This refusal of responsibility is evident in “pushback” efforts that deepen their reach into E.U.-Africa relations through the linkage of border policing with development aid, as well as through funding of the so-called Libyan coast guard to “pull back” people into horrific detention conditions.
Moreover, these pullbacks and the outsourcing of border control efforts to the Libyans represent the emergence of a growing refoulment “industry,” as the E.U. has largely scaled back naval involvement in the search and rescue area off the coast of Libya.
While the number of departures from North Africa has decreased from recent years, the estimated death rate continues to rise as the Mediterranean remains one of the world’s most deadly crossings for people on the move. The negligent “out of sight, out of mind” logic that appears to be governing the E.U.’s shifting approach ensures that people will continue to die in search of European shores.
Regardless of the bureaucratic attempts to stop rescue and criminalize solidarity efforts, civil society organizations remain persistent and committed in their efforts to fulfill what they see as a moral and legal responsibility. Despite the best efforts of these NGOs, the Italian government continues to find ways to slow down NGO returns. Salvini’s actions also further legitimize anti-migrant sentiment in the broader public discourse.
Undeterred, activists point to the success of the most recent mission by Sea-Watch, which marks the fourth time this year that a civil society rescue organization has successfully disembarked migrants in an Italian port.
Indeed, despite the deteriorating rhetoric surrounding migration in Europe, NGOs continue to declare that,
“The ports are not closed, they cannot be closed. We have affirmed a legal duty, a moral duty, an act of solidarity: rescue at sea must be protected and defended.”
While Italy’s Interior Minister continues to stoke fear and promote racist, xenophobic policies targeted at migrants and rescuers alike, NGOs remain committed to search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and defending solidarity.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.