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New hurdles for rescuers at sea in the Mediterranean

March 1, 2023

A maritime accident off the coast of Calabria has put sea rescue operations in Italy back in the spotlight. The far-right government is impeding the work of civil organizations — but they're not giving up.

A view of the "Sea Eye 4" rescue ship
In November 2021, over 800 people recovered at sea in various rescue operations from the ship Sea Eye 4 disembarked at the port of Trapani, Sicily. Italy's government wants to put an end to this kind of operation Image: Gabriele Maricchiolo/NurPhoto/imago images

The Mediterranean is a perilous place. That is particularly true for migrants who expect a better future for themselves in Europe — and travel towards it on boats which often don't qualify as deep-sea vessels.

Last weekend, a boat allegedly carrying at least 150 people crashed off the Italian coast. At least 62 people were killed in the incident. During the first weeks of 2023, dangerous sea crossings have increased, along with problems experienced by civil sea rescuers.

Being located in the central Mediterranean Sea, Italy has a particular responsibility: Migrants who first enter EU territory in Italy can apply for asylum in the country.

According to the interior ministry in Rome, 14,104 migrants already arrived in Italy between 1st January and 24th February, 2023 — a sharp increase compared to previous years, which saw the arrival of 5,345 (2022) and 4,304 (2021) during the same time period. The majority of them reach Italy by their own efforts, without help from sea rescuers.

What measures were undertaken by Giorgia Meloni?

After the accident off the Calabrian coast, Italy's Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, said she felt encouraged "to stop irregular migration in order to avoid futher tragedies." At the turn of the year, the government coalition led by the far-right Fratelli d'Italia passed a decree that impedes the work of civil sea rescue organizations.

The arguably most consequential regulation applies immediately after a maritime rescue has taken place. Rescue boats now have to report a rescue mission without delay, in order to be referred to a specific Italian port. That means they cannot, as they did before, undertake several rescue missions in a row within the same area, and head for a port only afterwards. In addition, the rescue boats are often referred to remote ports located in the north of Italy.

When, for instance, the Ocean Viking ship carried out a rescue mission off the Libyan coast in mid-February, it was subsequently dispatched to Ravenna. On the map, the Adriatic port is nearer to London than to Libya.

A system of fines punishes any infractions, and is in practice difficult to avoid for rescuers. Meloni's government has also taken the view that the rescue ships' flag states — usually the rescue services' countries of origin, with several coming from Germany — must offer asylum procedures to persons rescued at sea, as opposed to the countries in which people first enter EU soil. Her demand is legally controversial because rescue missions are carried out in international waters and the respective ships' crews do not act on behalf of their governments.

How do civil sea rescuers respond to the pressure?

Shortly after the decree was released, 18 civil sea rescue organizations and other supporters published a joint statementin which they expressed their "gravest concerns regarding the latest attempt by a European government to obstruct assistance to people in distress at sea".

The decree violated "international maritime, human rights and European law, and should therefore trigger a strong reaction by the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Member States and institutions".

Migrants seen queueing for breakfast on the Proactiva Open Arms Uno rescue boat
In August 2022, rescued migrants had to sit tight for days on the Open Arms Uno because the boat was not allowed to enter a portImage: Juan Medina/REUTERS

"It is clear that if humanitarian ships continue to be stopped, fined, forced to travel unnecessary kilometers, they will not be able to continue to operate for long," Veronica Alfonsi, the president of the Italian branch of the Spanish organization Proactiva Open Arms, told DW. "It is also true, however, that for seven years we have been fighting, alone, unconstitutional laws and European inaction, we have become very resilient. We will therefore continue to be at sea."

The Geo Barents ship operated by Doctors without Borders (MSF), however, has been incapacitated for the time being: Last week, it was detained in Sicily for a period of 20 days because the Italian government accused the ship's crew of violating the new regulations. In addition, a fine of up to €10,000 ($10,600) is being considered. According to an MSF spokeswoman, a decision on legal countermeasures is in the final stages of preparation.

Occasionally, however, new organizations arrive on the scene. The German NGO SARAH Seenotrettung (Search and Rescue for All Humans) is currently readying a ship. The Life Support, launched by Italian NGO Emergency, is operational only since December 2022. The organization had previously offered medical aid and cultural mediation.

In addition, NGOs Mission Lifeline, Open Arms, ResqShip, Sea-Eye and Sea-Watch currently have larger ships operating in the central Mediterranean (the SOS Humanity vessel is temporarily moored in a winter dockyard). Apart from the larger ships, the NGOs are also deploying several smaller vessels. Sea-Watch uses two airplanes for aerial reconnaissance purposes.

Would it have been possible to prevent the recent tragedy in a different political climate?

Asked by DW about the maritime accident near the Calabrian village of Steccato di Cutro, Veronica Alfonsi, of Open Arms, replied: "This is not a tragedy, it is the result of precise political choices." Alfonsi demands an investigation of the coast guard operation: "We understand that a Frontex vehicle had raised the alarm, two Coast Guard patrol boats had gone out to look for the boat and had returned due to bad weather. Circumstances to be verified because you do not leave a boat at the mercy of the waves. Under no circumstances."

The ill-fated boat had begun its journey in Izmir, Turkey. Authorities, however, are not yet particularly prepared to deal with the new route, Alfonsi told DW: "Lately (..), hundreds of people, many Afghans and Iranians, are trying that route because it is somehow considered safer. Wrongly, of course. Calabria has been experiencing this phenomenon recently and tries to help, but is not equipped to do so. Obviously, there is no structured government mission there, as there is none in the central Mediterranean." Her organization, she added, was now evaluating whether it will become active on this new route.