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At least 150 dead and over 1,000 refugees intercepted in one month, yet Europe continues to blockade the NGO rescuers

In the 31 days since the last NGO rescue ship was seized, the central Mediterranean remains the world’s deadliest border where human rights are insignificant

IT HAS been a month since the Italian port authorities seized the last NGO refugee rescue ship operating in the central Mediterranean.

In the last 31 days, over 150 people have drowned trying to flee war-torn Libya’s barbarous migrant detention centres and reach safety on European shores.

Over 1,000 more have been intercepted at sea and returned by the country’s EU-supported coastguards, according to estimates by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

“This year, more than 10,000 migrants have been intercepted or rescued and returned to Libya,” IOM Libya’s chief of mission Federico Soda said on today.

“In the absence of concrete action from states on search and rescue, safe predictable disembarkation and solidarity, more people are taken back to exploitation and abuse.”

Between 2015 — when the so-called “refugee crisis” began — and 2019, European Union naval ships operating in the central Mediterranean as part of an anti-human trafficking mission (known as Operation Sophia) saved the lives of over 40,000 people fleeing Libya’s bloody civil war.

But last spring, under pressure from Italy’s then right-populist government, the EU decided to pull its ships from the area under the fallacious assumption that its vessels — a needle in a 970,000 square-mile haystack — were tempting refugees to risk their lives at sea.

From then on, a small collection of NGOs — frequently referred to as the civil fleet — have been the only actors dedicated to carrying out refugee search-and-rescue missions in the area.

All of their life-saving missions have come under increasing hostility from European governments, Malta and Italy in particular, or have been ignored.

Europe’s treatment of refugees in the central Mediterranean has also only worsened, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

In March, both Italy and Malta’s governments announced that its ports were closed to refugees — but only to those rescued by NGO ships.

The bloc has continued to fund, train and support the Libyan coastguard despite criticisms from the civil fleet and international human rights organisations, as well as the EU’s own concerns, revealed by The Civil Fleet earlier this year, that the war-torn country’s government may be violating the human rights of migrants and profiting from their detention.

So far this year, the Libyan coastguard has, the IOM estimates, intercepted 10,398 people — 1,173 more than in the whole of 2019.

Europe’s animosity towards the civil fleet came to a head on the Italian island of Sardinia on October 9.

After completing a two-week off-shore quarantine following the disembarkation of 133 refugees, the Alan Kurdi became the sixth rescue ship in five months to be subjected to a gruelling inspection by coastguard officials sent directly from Rome and handed an endless list of supposed safety irregularities that barred the ship from leaving port.

The crew of the Alan Kurdi before its last mission in September (Pic: Joris Grahl / Sea Eye)

Sea Eye, the German charity which operates the ship, refutes the Italian authorities’ accusations, pointing out that its flag state, Germany, had already approved the ship’s safety. The organisation has a pending lawsuit against the Alan Kurdi’s detention.

“Unfortunately, very little has happened since the detention,” Sea Eye spokesman Simon Pompé told The Civil Fleet today.

“It is infuriating because it is undeniable that for every second the Alan Kurdi lays in harbour, there are people who don’t get saved.

“The Italian coastguard’s delaying tactic is costing lives in real time. It has become crystal clear that the Italians don’t see the dying at sea as emergencies anymore, a flagrant violation of international law and human rights.”

Sea Watch, another German refugee rescue NGO, currently has two ships detained in Sicily. The Sea Watch 3 has been held on the island since July 9 following the rescue of 211 refugees.

The Sea Watch 4, which is operated jointly with the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has been stuck in port for over 50 days after it saved the lives of 353 during its first mission this September.

“Search-and-rescue capacity is desperately needed at the world’s deadliest sea border, yet European governments are blocking rescue ships from saving lives,” Hannah Bowman, MSF’s communications manager on board the Sea Watch 4, told The Civil Fleet today.

“Our medical humanitarian crew has now been blocked in the port of Palermo for almost two months, on flimsy technicalities that prevent it from sailing.

“During this time, there have been multiple shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean, with at least 152 men, women and children reported to have died in their attempt to escape Libya.

“Our MSF team in Italy recently met the survivors of one of these tragedies; people who saw their loved ones disappear beneath the water — including the mother of a two-year-old girl whose body is still missing.

“When it comes to what happens at our borders, the gap between political rhetoric and the way things are handled in reality is both profound and devastating: people are dying at sea, politicians say this is unacceptable, and then they leave people to die. It is despicable.

“If governments are not willing to step-up to stop people from drowning, at the very least they should let NGOs do their job.”

Also prevented from sailing due to administrative moves made by the Italian and European authorities are the Italian charity Mediterranea Saving Human’s Mare Jonio, Basque charity Humanitarian Maritime Rescue’s Aita Mari, European organisation SOS Mediterranee’s Ocean Viking, and the Banksy-funded rescue ship Louise Michel.

Despite there being no dedicated rescue ships operating off the coast of Libya, people keep departing from its blood-soaked shores.

Yes, the Libyan coastguard does occasionally stop people drowning, when its boats work, but its actions can only be considered interceptions.

In fact, this September Amnesty International published a report on the conditions refugee and migrants face inside Libya and its migrant detention centres.

Based on the testimonies from more than 30 refugees, the report found new evidence of abuse, torture, disappearance and forced labour inside the country.

Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa’s deputy director Diana Eltahawy called on the EU to reassess its relationship with Libya’s coastguard.

“The EU should make any further support conditional on immediate action to stop horrific abuses against refugees and migrants.

“This would include ending arbitrary detention and closing immigration detention centres.

“Until then, anyone rescued or intercepted in the central Mediterranean should not be returned to Libya, but instead be allowed to disembark in a place of safety.”

The activist network Alarm Phone continues to operate its emergency hotline for refugees in distress at sea. The phone has not stopped ringing and yet, the Maltese and Italian coastguards have continued to ignore their calls.

Over the weekend, Matla’s Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo boasted that the Libyan coastguard had prevented 6,000 migrants from reaching the Mediterranean island nation since March.

An Alarm Phone activist told The Civil Fleet today that they were not surprised by Bartolo’s comments given the country’s treatment of refugees at sea this year — which has included holding them in off-shore quarantines for weeks on end, forcing their boats to continue sailing to Italy, refusing to allow them to disembark from a commercial vessel, and organising private ships to push them back to Libya.

“Bartolo’s administration has actively worked to keep people out, no matter the costs,” the Alarm Phone activist who wished to remain anonymous said.

“Lives have been lost because of these Maltese policies and actions and others are imprisoned in inhumane detention camps as a result.

“We have directly witnessed innumerable situations how the Maltese authorities delayed or avoided rescues, attacked migrant boats, or pushed them back to a warzone.

“Unfortunately, Malta has been allowed to act in this way in full impunity, as such behaviour conforms with the anti-migrant policies and the deterrence regime that the EU and other member states continue to foster.

“In the Mediterranean Sea, human rights have become insignificant, what matters is keeping the count of arriving migrants low.”

Top image of Sea Eye’s ship, Alan Kurdi, on patrol in the central Mediterranean Photo: Joris Grahl / Sea Eye

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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