Lorenzo Tondo and Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, September 13, 2018
Thousands of migrants risk dying at sea because of a clampdown on NGO rescue ships, aid agencies have warned, in what has been their longest period of absence from the central Mediterranean since they began operating in late 2015.
Since 26 August, no NGO rescue vessel has operated on the main migration routes between north Africa and southern Europe.
Anti-immigration policies by the Maltese and Italian governments, which have closed their ports to the vessels, have driven the sharp decrease in rescue missions. People seeking asylum are still attempting the risky crossing — but without the boats, shipwrecks are likely to rise dramatically.
The last time the Mediterranean was without NGO rescue boats was from 28 June to 8 July 2018, and in those days more than 300 migrants died at sea.
The death toll has fallen in the past year, but the number of those drowning as a proportion of arrivals in Italy has risen sharply in the past few months, with the possibility of dying during the crossing now three times higher.
According to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2,383 migrants died in shipwrecks in 2017, compared with 100,308 arrivals in Italy. In 2018, with NGO boats under pressure from Maltese and Italian authorities, the number of victims has already reached 1,130, compared with just 20,319 who have landed in the country.
Of the 10 NGO rescue boats that were operating in the Mediterranean, three are being detained at the port of Valletta, Malta, in a dispute over flag registration.
The Iuventa ship of the German NGO Jugend Rettet has been held for more than a year at the Sicilian port of Trapani, despite prosecutors in Palermo dropping people-smuggling charges against its crew.
Vessels operated by the Open Arms NGO, meanwhile, left the central Mediterranean last month because of the closure of the Italian ports, with no date set for their return.
The Aquarius, which this summer was forced to detour to Spain after Italy and Malta closed their ports to it, is due to depart from France in the next few days but its NGO operators, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, cannot guarantee its constant presence in the sea.
The last recorded shipwreck in the central Mediterranean claimed the lives of more than 100 people off the coast of Libya, according to testimony from survivors collected by MSF. Frédéric Penard, the director of operations for SOS Méditerranée, said: “It is horrible what has been reported. This tragedy has been going on for years and is especially bad now. There are fewer boats, and with fewer boats there are fewer rescues, and there are more deaths.”
Without the NGO boats, the seas off Libya are being patrolled by the Libyan coastguard, which struck a deal with Italy in 2017 to bring those attempting to cross to Europe back to a country where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse.
Survivors from the shipwreck, who left Libya in two rubber boats, say they alerted the Italian coastguard as one vessel deflated and one had engine failure. The Italians passed the alert to the Libyan coastguard, who rescued nearly 300 people, who are now believed to be held in detention camps.
The Italian ruling coalition of interior minister Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and the populist Five Star Movement has described the NGO boats as “sea taxis” and accused them of doing business with traffickers. After an election campaign in which Salvini pledged to adopt tough polices on migrants, one of his first moves was to close Italian ports to the aid group ships.
“Italy has obtained what it wanted,” said Fulvio Vassallo, an asylum law professor at the University of Palermo. “Rome has managed to get rid of the eyes of the NGOs, who could testify to the abuses of the Libyan coastguard. Today, only merchant vessels and fishermen remain, and fortunately some of them continue to respond to the laws of the sea, putting their lives at risk.”
One week ago, six Tunisian fishermen were arrested at sea and charged for enabling smuggling by the Italian police after their trawler released a small vessel it had been towing with 14 migrants onboard, 24 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa. The men’s lawyers say they saw a migrant vessel in distress and a common decision was made to tow it to safety in Italian waters.