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What's the current status of migrant sea rescues?

Wesley Dockery
August 14, 2017

Thousands of migrants have been embarking on a perilous journey to the Mediterranean - their fate is determined by refugee rescue ships and government policy in Europe. Who are the major players involved?

Italien Flüchtlinge werden von Hilfsorganisation Sea-Eye gerettet
Image: picture alliance/dpa/NurPhoto/C. Marquardt

What is the EU doing to tackle the influx of refugees?

The European Union Naval Force Mediterranean or Operation Sophia surveils smuggling and trafficking networks in the Mediterranean, searches suspicious vessels and apprehends suspected smugglers. In October 2016, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, commonly known as Frontex was formed. It coordinates responses between the various European coast guards, analyses risks and helps countries determine the best procedures to return migrants.

The Italian coast guard often plays a crucial role in saving migrants, because most of them on the Mediterranean are heading towards Italy. Between 2013 and 2014, the Italian government carried out the naval and air operation Operation Mare Nostrum to try and deal with migration to Europe. The Italian coast guard often carries out rescue missions to save migrants lost at sea. 

Libya is the largest transit country for migrants, where many of them embark off the country's coastline for Europe, most often winding up in Italy. Libya accepted Italy's request in August to have a naval mission operate in Libya's coastal waters.

Which NGOs have been involved in migrant rescue operations?

Private NGOs have been operating in international waters, coordinating with the Italian coast guard, reacting to SOS calls, finding abandoned migrant boats and bringing the refugees to a safe harbor - often in Italy.

The rescue organizations involved include the Spanish organization Proactiva Open Arms, German organizations Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet, Dutch charities Refugee Boat Foundation and Save the Children, Doctors without Borders (MSF), SOS Mediterranee, Migrant Offshore Aid station (MOAS) and the LifeBoat project's ship, Minden.

Meanwhile, NGOs involved in migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean have announced suspending their activities due to an announcement by the Libyan government on Sunday asserting its right over its search zone of 12 nautical miles, or 22.2. kilometers, along its coast.

What is the Libyan "search and rescue zone?"

Libya announced Sunday it would expand its maritime rescue zone in order to deal with the crisis. The Libyan government "is ready to put in place a search and rescue zone in its waters, work with Europe and invest in its coast guards," Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said.  "This sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean."

Doctors without Borders, Save the Children and Sea Eye have decided to suspend their rescue operations due to fears that the Libyan coastguard has become more aggressive in guarding its zone. When NGO vessels reach the border of Libyan waters, they often clash with the Libyan coastguard, which has even shot warning shots in the air to tell the NGO boats to stay away.

 "Under these circumstances, a continuation of our rescue work is not currently possible. It would be irresponsible towards our crews." Michael Buschheuer of the German NGO Sea Eye stated, saying the announcement was like to a threat to NGOs operating in the area.

However,  recently, Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano and EU- refugee commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos have criticized a lack in political response, with Alfano saying the EU has failed to handle the migrant crisis. The two officials are demanding a better coordination and a joint effort in the fight against smuggling networks. NGOs, they say, should accept the code of conduct to join forces and help rescue migrants at sea.

What is the Italian code of conduct for migrant rescues?

The Italian government has in the past accused private NGOs of colluding with human smugglers. They claim that the smugglers know that NGOs will be right outside the 12-nautical-mile zone off the Libyan coast to rescue the migrants and bring them to a safe port in Europe. This is a concern for Italy, because many of the migrants will then land on Italian shores.

The Italian government then designed a code of conduct in August for the NGOs to combat the alleged collusion and NGOs have been divided on whether to sign onto the document or not. The document would demand that the rescue groups allow Italian police officers on board to monitor operations and rescue ships will have to turn on their tracking devices.

Who has signed the code of conduct so far?

Save the Children, MOAS and Sea-Eye have signed on while SOS Mediterranee, Doctors Without Borders, Sea-Watch and Jugend Rettet have opposed the document. 

"In light of the more than 2,000 deaths at sea this year, what is need is not more rules, but greater rescue capacity," Germany's Sea Watch said in August.

The Save the Children  organization signed the document. "We would not have signed if even on single point would have comprised our effectiveness. This is not the case, not one single point of the code will hinder our activities," Valerio Neri, the director of the Italian wing of the organization said.

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Source: InfoMigrants2017InfoMigrants2017