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Italy seeks to rein in NGO refugee rescues

Teri Schultz
July 4, 2017

EU and Italian authorities want new rules placed on NGO rescues, raising international aid organizations' ire. The Italian government threatens to close its ports and insists on NGOs signing up to a "code of conduct."

Doku - Flucht übers Mittelmeer
Image: AP Photo/E. Morenatti

Smugglers' conscience-free trafficking tactics make the few hundred kilometers of water between Libya and Italy a deadly gamble. 

Rome says its capacity to both rescue and accommodate the thousands of desperate people is exhausted and it's angered by the fact that NGOs have commissioned their own boats and are rescuing passengers very close to the Libyan coast, bringing them to Italy. Rome argues that this extra safety net motivates more people to set sail in vessels that could never make the voyage unaided.

The UNHCR says these private rescue teams are now picking up 41 percent of the people rescued. The Italian government is also calling on its fellow EU members to provide assistance and relocation spots but it seems special retribution is aimed at the NGO rescue operations.

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The Italian government this week threatened to close its ports to those ships and now will insist on NGOs signing up to a "code of conduct," whose details will be revealed later this week. That's a move supported in the new "action plan" just announced by the European Commission to relieve pressure on Italy.

"The call of the Italian government on European solidarity is completely justified," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in presenting the action plan. "Italy has shown a level of solidarity with refugees that is almost unprecedented in European history over the last couple of years." 

The Commission plan mobilizes some new money for both Italy and Libya, but it is largely a nudge towards more diligent implementation of current efforts already in force, as well as the ever-present hope for increased solidarity between EU governments. In calling on Italy to present a new set of regulations governing NGO behavior in the central Mediterranean, which is expected at the informal meeting of justice and home affairs ministers later this week in Tallinn, Timmermans put the differences of opinion between the NGOs and the Italian government down to "misunderstandings" about where and how they should operate.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the impulse for action of the NGOs is a humanitarian impulse; they want to save people in dire circumstances," Timmermans told a news conference. "But we have to make sure that in executing those intentions we do not create additional problems or perhaps even the risk of accidents at sea when there are also others operating in the same area. So a code of conduct could create clarity for everyone operating in this very complicated field so that there are no accidents." He added that this code might alleviate misunderstandings held both by NGOs and the public authorities - but the action plan says only that NGOs would be bound by it.

UN: 'Code' should apply to all ships

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the central Mediterranean Route, rejects this approach. "If we want to talk about a code of conduct, no problem - but let's have a code of conduct for everybody," Cochetel said, at the Brussels launch of the UN's new report on Libyan situation. "When there is a call for rescue, the Rome-based maritime rescue center tries to find out which are the boats in the vicinity of the call. Quite often we see shipping companies switching off their GPS systems in order not to rescue people. Can we have a code of conduct also for these shipping companies?" He would add ships operating under NATO's Sea Guardian program to this list too. "So, a code of conduct for NGOs, no problem," Cochetel said, "but let's have it apply to all."

Joining Cochetel at the report's launch was Eugenio Ambrosi, director of the International Organization for Migration's Brussels office. "Let's not forget that member states in Europe have also a code of conduct - it's called European law," he said, "which entails a variety of things, which includes - and I will not stop repeating it - which includes the duty and obligation to show solidarity [with refugees] in fact and not just in words."

NGOs not planning to stop

Jana Ciernioch
Jana Ciernioch, spokesperson for the rescue ship SOS Mediterranee, says her organization already follows all the rules likely to be included in an Italian 'code of conduct' for rescue shipsImage: Susanne Friedel

Some of the measures Italy is expected to demand include a pledge to always keep ships' transponders on and to submit lists of everyone working on board the ships. Jana Ciernioch, the spokersperson for SOS Mediterranée, tells DW their operation already follows all those rules and believes NGOs are just being used as a scapegoat. "What's behind this are the upcoming elections in Italy," she surmises. "Some parties are using the crisis to further their own goals. We've been feeling the change in political climate for some weeks." Ciernioch says she and her colleagues are just going to keep trying to save lives.

Elizabeth Collett of the Migration Policy Institute says nobody should be blamed for a situation that's simply bad all the way around.  "It's an extremely complex moral quandary that NGOs find themselves in," Collett explained to DW.  "And I think it's very easy to oversimplify the situation. On the one hand this is a humanitarian action: If we don't pick these people up they will die. They are in boats that cannot go a certain distance beyond a few miles from the Libyan coast. However, they are using those boats because of the presence of the NGOs. But having created that situation, NGOs can't just pull out."

And they won't, says Nisreen Rubaian, one of UNHCR's protection officers working in Libya. "This won't deter the NGOs from doing their jobs," she told DW. "The alternative is an increasing number of deaths in the sea.  Is this what we want?"

But former Italian ambassador to NATO Stefano Stefanini says there's another bleak future to be considered too, if the problem of migration isn't stopped by improving life in the source countries. "If people in Europe don't have the feeling that the national governments and EU are doing something, are handling the problem, this will bring to power very nasty populist parties and movements," Stefanini told DW.  He hopes Italy receives more support from fellow EU governments and, he says with some reluctance, that the NGO activity is curbed. "I realize it's a conundrum," Stefanini says, "but rescuing migrants 20 miles off the coast of Libya is putting more people at sea."