483 drown in the Mediterranean while rescue ships are trapped in port
On 10 June 2018 Italy’s new government closed its ports to NGO rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean Sea, leaving the humanitarian vessel Aquarius adrift with 639 migrants on board. Shortly after another NGO ship, Lifeline, was also turned away. The two ships were finally allowed to dock in Malta following a tense agreement that the people on board would be relocated within the EU.
On 2 July, the Sea Watch-3, which was by then the only operating rescue boat still operating in the Mediterranean, was detained in Malta, alongside Lifeline, and not allowed to leave port.
While rescue ships have been blocked in port, recent days have become the deadliest in the Mediterranean this year. On 1 July, the Libyan coastguard reported 63 people missing(1), while on 29 June more than 100 people drowned, among them three babies and other children(2). On 19 June, a wooden boat capsized off the coast of Libya(3). Out of the estimated 100 passengers, only five survived. A number of bodies have been washed up on the beaches.
At least 483 people have drowned in the Mediterranean between 19 June and 4 July 2018 while two well equipped and ready to sail NGO vessels were detained in port. These latest fatalities have pushed the death toll in the Central Mediterranean route to over 1,400 in 2018(5).
Pia Klemp, captain of the Sea-Watch 3, said “While we are hindered from leaving port, people are drowning, this is absolutely unacceptable. Any further death at sea is on the account of those preventing rescue from taking place.”
Hundreds of people are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya – because the rescuers are no longer allowed to help. The governments of Malta and Italy are deliberately disabling the rescue vessels and aircraft of the aid organisations. They justify this by saying that the death of refugees will deter others from seeking protection from war and violence. This violates Europe’s basic humanitarian values. “No one puts their child in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land.”
Italy, alongside Germany, is one of the few EU countries that has taken in a significant number of refugees in recent years, with an estimated 500,000 now living there. However, many Italians have come to resent the lack of support shown by other EU states, and this is why the new hard-line Italian government moved to stop accepting arrivals from across the Mediterranean, including those rescued at sea – a potential disaster for those escaping the well-known living hell of Libya.
In May 2018, seventeen survivors of a fatal incident off the coast of Libya filed an application against Italy with the European Court of Human Rights (EctHR). The incident occurred on 6th November 2017, when the Libyan Coast Guard interfered with the NGO vessel SeaWatch-3, hindering its efforts to rescue 130 migrants from a dinghy in distress. As the dinghy sank, at least 20 migrants died. The Libyan Coast Guard ‘pulled back’ the survivors to Libya, where they endured detention in inhumane conditions, beatings, extortion, starvation, and rape. Two of the survivors were subsequently ‘sold’ and tortured with electrocution. This was not an isolated incident.
Supplying evidence in the case, Charles Heller, co-founder of the Forensic Oceanography project, stated: “we have analysed sixteen different episodes in which Italy, with the support of the EU, has coordinated and directed the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants to Libya, despite the well-documented human rights violations they can expect to face there. The evidence we have gathered demonstrates the shocking extent to which Europe has been outsourcing its human rights violations”.
Lorenzo Pezzani, co-founder of the Forensic Oceanography project, added: “audio-visual recordings by NGOs at sea have allowed us to reconstruct incidents such as that described in this application with unprecedented precision. What emerges is a harrowing story that brings the dramatic effects of Italy and the EU’s policy of ‘pull-back by proxy’ into sharp relief”.
In addition to the above there are many documented accounts of horrific torture and abuse occurring in Libyan detention centres. In a statement issued on 17th November 2017 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, specified that, “The suffering of migrants detained in Libya is an outrage to the conscience of humanity”. Calling for the creation of domestic legal measures and the decriminalisation of irregular migration to ensure the protection of migrants’ human rights he said: “The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the unimaginable horrors endured by migrants in Libya and pretend that the situation can be remedied only by improving conditions in detention”.
From 1-6 November, UN human rights monitors visited four DCIM facilities in Tripoli, where they interviewed detainees who have fled conflict, persecution and extreme poverty from states across Africa and Asia. “Monitors were shocked by what they witnessed: thousands of emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity,” Zeid said.
“Many of those in detention have already been exposed to trafficking, kidnappings, torture, rape and other sexual violence, forced labour, exploitation, severe physical violence, starvation and other atrocities in the course of their journeys through Libya, often at the hands of traffickers or smugglers.”
On 29 June, following a tense summit, EU leaders announced that they had reached an agreement on managing migration. However, the details were unclear.
They said there should be a shared effort, but ‘only on a voluntary basis’. They discussed setting up processing centres near to borders where assessments would be made that would decide, for each migrant, which country should have responsibility for an asylum claim. This means utilising the ‘Dublin’ system of allocating people to their state of first entry into the EU, an outdated system that has been widely criticised as not providing fair or effective protection for refugees. This system also causes tension between EU members as it ‘favours’ countries such as the UK, France and Germany, while putting disproportionate pressure on front line counties like Italy, Greece and Hungary. This will make it hard to implement in practice, and many questions remain over how and when this system will work.
It was also suggested that migrant processing centres be set up in north African countries.
EU funds would be available to persuade countries to sign on but, so far, no countries have agreed, while a couple have ruled themselves out.