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Italy's cry for help

July 4, 2017

As migration to Europe surges, Italy has issued threats against aid organizations assisting refugees in the Mediterranean. Is it a call for help directed at the EU? Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

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

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an agency that cooperates with the UN, 85,000 migrants fled to Italy from North Africa by boat in the first half of 2017. That figure is 19 percent higher than the one for the first half of last year. And according to IOM, the high point of the "season" hasn't even been reached yet. Flimsy tugboats, usually overloaded with migrants, will set off on their journey from June to September, because that's when the stretch of Mediterranean between Libya and Italy is at its calmest. The chances of holding on for dear life until being rescued are simply greater during that period. In the first six months of this year, some 2,000 deaths were recorded on the so-called Mediterranean route, according to IOM.

All of the EU's attempts to reduce the number of migrants have failed so far. The official aim of the EU is to close off the Mediterranean route, as well as the route between Turkey and Greece, as much as possible. A flotilla of European border guards patrols the area off the coast of Libya, an effort to save migrants from drowning but also to deter them from setting off toward Europe. Cooperation with the Libyan coast guard leaves a lot to be desired, according to the EU Commission. There is a lack of ships and concrete contacts on the Libyan side.

Almost half of those refugees who have been rescued were saved not by EU ships but by private boats being operated by one of the 10 private aid organizations patrolling the area. Frontex, the EU border agency, had asked the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for assistance two years ago. Now the head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, along with Italian politicians, is accusing the organizations of assisting the migrants' boats in making their journeys. The prosecutor's office in Sicily meanwhile has accused the organizations of helping smugglers off the Libyan coast. There's also a similar investigation going on in Libya.

Italy is writing new rules

Italy now wants to control the work of aid organizations more closely and is preparing new procedures and new rules of conduct. Missions by Frontex and the NGOs have so far been coordinated by the Italian navy. They have accused individual employees of switching off their ships' transponders.

Without the transponders automatically indicating the position of their vessels, these individuals then allegedly travel to Libyan waters, where they pick up migrants from inflatable boats and rotten wooden cages. The individuals also maintain close contact with the smugglers. These allegations have been raised by the spokesman for the Libyan coast guard, Ayyoub Qasem. "They do not care about Libya's sovereign waters," Qasem said. Italy now wants private vessels to keep the transponders switched on at all times, register teams, and inform a naval station before a rescue operation begins.

Criticism from the UN

In Brussels, the UN High Commission for Refugees' special representative for the Mediterranean route, Vincent Cochetel, sharply criticized any attempt to blame the aid organizations. "If there are to be rules of conduct, then they have to apply to all of us," Cochetel said. "We often see merchant ships in the area switch off their transponders in order not to have to save people. Can you tell me how many people these ships have saved in the past few years?"

Vincent Cochetel UNHCR
UNHCR spokesman Vincent Cochetel says other EU countries need to share Italy's burdenImage: UNHCR /S. Hopper

Frontex chief Leggeri, on the other hand, is blaming the private rescue campaigns for encouraging more refugees to make the trip - and possibly pay the ultimate price for risking their lives in the rubber boats.

Italy threatens to close its ports

Now, Italy is threatening to close its ports to NGO ships with migrants on board. "If the only ports that accept migrants are in Italy, then something is wrong in Europe," said Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti. The Italian navy could also refuse allow rescued migrants from the mostly smaller NGO ships in the Mediterranean board its vessels, although this has not yet happened.

Interior ministers from France and Germany have promised Italy more support. The new rules that Italy will impose upon the private rescue vessels will likely be appoved by the EU at an informal meeting between the 28 interior ministers in Tallinn next week.

No solidarity with Italy

The deeper problem, namely the failed redistribution of refugees to other EU countries, has still not been solved despite two years of dialog. Technically, the other states would be obliged to take thousands of refugees from Italy and Greece every month. But this doesn't happen, even though the EU Commission has warned against this and has opened infringement proceedings against some countries.

Italy's prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, has announced the establishment of decentralized deportation centers throughout the country, and the government is also preparing for the construction of additional reception centers. The government says existing facilities will soon be full, and more of the burden must be shared by other European countries.

Italien Rettungseinsätze im Mittelmeer
Thousands have been saved aboard ships operated by SOS MediterraneeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Klimkeit

SOS Mediterranee rejects allegations

The spokesperson for the aid organization SOS Mediterranee, Jana Ciernioch, meanwhile, has rejected the allegations leveled against it and other NGOs by the Italian government. She insists that conditions laid out by the official code of conduct have been met and that accusations that the private ships cooperated with smugglers are false. "There is no practical cooperation with the refugee boats," she said. "This is a call for help [on the part of Italy.] We're not the problem. The solution lies with the EU."


Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union