Posted on December 10, 2018

Cowed Aid Agencies Cease Migrant Rescues in the Mediterranean

Giovanni Legorano, Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2018

Nongovernmental organizations that have shouldered a large part of the operations to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean have ceased all such activity, amid a sharp fall in seaborne arrivals and a crackdown by the Italian government on their search-and-rescue work.

Late Thursday, Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, a migrant aid group, said they would withdraw their last, jointly operated, boat from the Mediterranean, blaming harsh treatment from the Italian government over the last 18 months.

The boat, called the Aquarius, {snip} has been at the center of a bitter political fight with the new Italian government, which is working to curtail aid groups operating in the sea.

Starting two years ago, a number of NGOs chartered boats to launch search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, arguing that the inadequate response of European coast guard and navy vessels to migrants’ distress calls was causing hundreds to drown. About 750,000 seaborne migrants have arrived on Italian shores since 2011.

Last year, the previous, center-left Italian government required NGO boats to disembark migrants on land, rather than transferring them to other ships. The NGOs typically loaded the migrants onto other ships that then traveled hundreds of miles to bring them to land in Italy, thus allowing aid agencies’s boats to remain closer to Libya and rescue more migrants.

The government also forced the boats to allow armed police to board to gather evidence for people-smuggling investigations. {snip}


Last summer, Matteo Salvini, interior minister and head of the League, ordered Italian ports to refuse docking rights to the Aquarius and other NGO rescue boats.


As a result of the prosecutors’ order and the government’s campaign, the Aquarius has been forced to remain in port in France over the last two months, due to “a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign backed by several European states,” SOS Méditerranée said in a statement.


{snip} Rome also gained support from Libyan tribes to cut off help for people smugglers.

So far this year, 23,000 seaborne migrants have reached Italy, compared with 117,000 over the same period of 2017.

“Fewer departures, fewer arrivals, fewer dead. It’s good this way,” said Mr. Salvini, commenting on the decision to end the Aquarius’s operations.