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Italy, NGOs argue over migrant rescue 'code of conduct'

July 25, 2017

Expect heated words when Italian interior ministers meet NGO representatives to discuss a framework for migrant search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. NGOs say the draft code criminalizes their work.

Mediterranean migrant rescue mission of the Libyan coast
Image: Reuters/D. Zammit Lupi

Since the start of the year, over 93,000 migrants have landed in Italian harbors, Italian officials claim, many after a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea through Libyan waters. With Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warning of a new surge of migrants into Europe, Italian officials are desperately seeking for ways to manage the situation – and are often bumping heads with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who work to save migrant lives at sea. 

No easy agreements are expected Tuesday when Italian interior ministry representatives meet with NGOs in Rome to discuss a proposed and hotly debated "code of conduct" that would prescribe the framework in which NGOs can undertake their search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. 

Italian coast guard makes dramatic rescue of migrants at sea

Italian officials drafted the proposed "code of conduct" after the country's prosecutors and the European Union (EU) border agency Frontex accused charities that operate migrant sea-rescue operations of facilitating the work of human smuggler and encouraging migrants to undertake the life-threatening sea voyage by carrying out rescues increasingly close to the Libyan coast. Criticism has also come from the Austrian and German governments. The NGOs have denied the accusations, arguing that they work within the framework of international law. 

A 12-point 'Code of Conduct'

Various NGOs, including Doctors without Borders and Youth Rescue ("Jugend Rettet"), will participate in Wednesday's meeting in the Italian capital to discuss the "code of conduct" draft.

The code lays out 12 commitments that NGOs would have to adhere to in order to undertake their search and rescue missions.  These include promising not to cross into Libyan territorial waters, cooperating with investigations looking into migrant trafficking, and being transparent with their funding. In late April, an Italian attorney from the port city of Catania accused some NGOs of working with human smugglers, a charge which the charities have denied and for which the evidence remains outstanding. 

The code also address the allegation that search and rescue ships have turned off their tracking devices and asks the NGO vessels to keep the electronic equipment turned on at all times. The document also bans light-signal communications between smugglers and rescuers that Italian prosecutors have alleged NGOs used to signal to traffickers a good moment to launch boots packed with migrants. The NGOs have denied the allegations.

NGOs would be urged to retrieve migrant boats and engines when possible and the offshore transfer of migrants between rescue boats would be prohibited. These prescriptions would have a direct effect on smaller rescue operations that had over the pick-up migrants to larger ships while themselves remaining in the water close to Libyan territory. 

Criminalizing life-saving operations?

One of the most controversial points calls for NGOs to allow Italian judicial police on board their vessels "for information and evidence gathering." A failure to comply would result in safety inspections, additional extra certification, or even being refused "disembarkations in national ports in non-emergency situations," meaning the rescue ships would have to divert to ports in other countries. 

NGOs believe the proposed code criminalizes their search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. It remains unclear whether they will agree to Tuesday's draft, which is reported to still be in a phase of legal examination.  In addition, the practical application and the binding nature of the code remain unclear. 

As migrants arrivals have continued, Italy has threatened to deny foreign NGO ships the right to dock in the country's ports unless other EU nations increase their share of the migration burden.

On Monday, around 600 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats and wooden rafts in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian Coast Guard reported. NGO ships took part in the operation. 

cmb/rt (dpa, KNA)