The humanitarian rescue boats They will no longer be able to spend several days in the central Mediterranean carrying out different rescues, asylum requests will have to be made on the same ship and these may be confiscated in case of breaching the rules. These are some of the new measures approved by the Council of Ministers and signed by the Italian Presidency earlier this year.
Since his arrival at the Government last October, the executive led by the far-right Giorgia Meloni has begun a true crusade against the organizations that are dedicated to rescuing the lives of men, women, boys and girls at sea. On November 4, the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Piantedosi, the Minister of Defense, Guido Crosetti, and the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Matteo Salvini, approved a decree whereby rescue ships could only enter port in case of emergency and disembarking people in precarious health conditions, that is, a selective disembarkation. The rest should remain on the boats, return to international waters and the countries indicated on the flags of the ships take responsibility for the surviving people.
The decree caused, within a few days, four ships with more than 1,000 rescued people to wait for a safe port assignment without finding a response. “International law says that a search and rescue operation ends when all the survivors are landed in a safe place, so it is illegal to select some of them, what’s more, it goes against the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea ”, says Íñigo Mijangos, president of Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH), the NGO that manages the Aita Mari and who plans to leave this month for the central Mediterranean:
Thus, Italy made selective landings with the humanity 1 (one of the 30 people who had to stay on board lost consciousness when he learned that he was denied set foot on European land) and with the Geo Barentsbut allowed the Rise Above a complete landing considering that the rescue was carried out in the maritime search and rescue area of responsibility of Italy. However, within a few hours the Italian plan fell apart “with the crews refusing to leave port with part of the rescued people on board.” “We also believe that the Italian health teams that had to decide who disembarked, put pressure to end that pantomime,” says Mijangos.
Instead, a fourth ship, the ocean vikingwhich had been waiting for port for 18 days, with the exhausted crew and 234 survivors, as stated by the NGO itself, decided to request a port from France, a situation that sparked a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
After this event, Meloni took a turn in his anti-immigration policy: assigning distant ports. “The ports are usually in Sicily, mainly on the south-southwest coast. But now they have begun to give them anywhere in Italy. There are ships that have had to travel up to four days with the usual ports very close. The idea is clear, that the boats are sailing for days and without rescuing. It’s a real nonsense.”
Finally, on the verge of closing the year, the Italian Government approved a decree for the management of migratory flows and the simplification of migratory procedures that “intends to provide legal cover for sanctions and arrests of ships.” “Although – insists the president of SMH – there is already international legislation that makes the obligation to rescue very clear. An obligation that, by the way, does not correspond to civil society, but to the governments themselves. Something that is systematically breached”.
This new standard indicates that, as soon as the first rescue is carried out, port must be requested and course set in motion without delay to complete the rescue action. “They try to give an image of almost collaboration and speed, but it is not like that. Now they give you ports that are far away, but if you don’t comply, if you stay two or three days to see if more boats arrive, they can penalize you. And the big ships are prepared to spend several days, even a week rescuing. Boat Aita Mari It is small (it has a capacity for 150 people) and our rescues are usually practically simultaneous, with a difference of a few hours between each other, so I don’t think it will affect us, but what problem is there in large ships reporting the rescues? What do they do and when they have a full boat, do they go to port? In fact, we already do, we communicate to the authorities each and every one of the rescues. What is clear is that this decision increases the risk of unattended boats, that is, more deaths of people who have been forced to leave their countries.
Thus, in case of not requesting a safe port after the first rescue, the captains will face fines of up to 10,000 euros with the possibility of a 20-day administrative immobilization for the vessel. The fine could rise up to 50,000 euros, with the seizure of the ship, when the code of conduct imposed by this country is breached and the attempt is made to enter Italian waters without the proper authorization from the authorities.
asylum on the ship
Finally, the decree obliges the captains to inform the migrants on board about the possibility of requesting asylum so that the country whose flag the vessel is in charge of the process, something that for Mijangos is untenable. “There is a circular and a series of UNHCR recommendations that establish that the boats are not suitable places and that they are not conditioned to make any type of asylum evaluation. There are neither interpreters nor is the crew qualified to collect testimonies or assess the vulnerability of the rescued people”, she explains.
Despite the fact that this decree represents another obstacle for rescue boats, they have been suffering real criminalization campaigns by different governments for years. It is the case of iuventa, confiscated by the Italian authorities five years ago accused of collaborating with illegal migration. Four crew members face 20 years in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros for each person rescued in various actions.
Davide Salvadori, member of the iuventarecounts the numerous irregularities that have occurred in this case. “The hearing has been suspended on different occasions due to the lack of information from the prosecution to the defendants on crucial aspects of the process, thus violating their fundamental rights, or due to the lack of official translators that have prevented the statements from being rigorously made. ”.
On December 3, the presence of international observers was allowed in the process, “and given the numerous errors in the procedure and the lack of guarantee of a fair trial, it has been interrupted again so that the prosecution can rectify its errors,” says Salvadori.
A few days later came good news for the team of the iuventa. “The investigating magistrate of Trapani ordered the port authority to carry out maintenance work on the ship and restore it as it was before the embargo.” But the good news was short-lived.
«[El 19 de diciembre] the Italian Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior sued us for the serious economic and moral damages as a consequence of the alleged criminal act committed”, he says. Despite everything, Salvadori is clear about it: “Our only crime has been saving the lives of more than 14,000 people between 2016 and 2017. But we are not the only ones criminalized. Italian police have arrested more than 2,500 people on the move since 2013 and there were at least 1,905 people sentenced in Greek prisons in 2019. People who have fled their countries and are facing trials without any chance to seek legal assistance and without no knowledge of the crimes of which they are accused”, he concludes.
Trial on Lesbos
In this sense, on January 10, the trial against 24 activists began on the island of Lesbos (Greece), which was dismissed by a report of the European Parliament as “the biggest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe”. Among the defendants is the Syrian Sarah Mardini, who in 2015 was traveling with her sister Yusra in a precarious boat whose engine broke down during the journey between Turkey and Lesbos. The sisters, professional swimmers, jumped into the water and, for three hours, pushed the boat to the Greek coast, saving the lives of 18 people. After obtaining refugee status in Germany, Sarah decided to return to the island to rescue those who, like her, risk their lives at sea trying to reach Europe. Sarah and the rest of the activists face charges such as human trafficking, espionage or belonging to a criminal organization in a process that, according to her lawyers, is riddled with irregularities.
Meanwhile, the various civilian rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean have signed a joint statement denouncing that the new Italian decree will increase deaths on one of the deadliest migration routes in the world and denouncing the continued criminalization of NGOs and activists. The Geo Barents, Sea Watch, Be eyes or the two Spanish rescue ships, open arms Y Aita Mariamong others, require a reaction from the Commission and the European Parliament, as well as from the rest of the countries of the Union.
They have also assured that they will continue with their rescue operations, like the crew of Aita Mari, already prepared in Castellón to leave this January for the central Mediterranean. “We are talking about fundamental rights of people that all governments have the obligation to defend,” recalls Mijangos. And he adds: «We are organized civil society who are doing it. And we will continue to do it. No matter how many obstacles they put on us. Because every life matters. Because saving lives can never be a crime.”