MS Risk Blog

Aid Groups Divided Over Italy’s New Migrant Rescue Rules

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According to the Italian Interior Ministry, five aid groups that operate migrant rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea have refused to sign up to the Italian government’s code of conduct, with three other aid groups backing the new rules.

The Italian coastguard has reported that charity boats have become increasingly important in rescue operations, picking up more than a third of all migrants brought ashore so far this year against less than one percent in 2014. Italy however is now becoming increasingly concerned that the groups are facilitating people smuggling from North Africa and are encouraging migrants to make the perilous passage to Europe. It has therefore proposed a code containing around dozen points for the charities, with the ministry disclosing that those who refused to sign the document had put themselves “outside the organized system of sea rescues, with all the concrete consequences that can have.” This statement comes after Italy last month threatened to shut its ports to NGOS that did not sign up. An Interior Ministry source however has since stated that in reality those groups would face more checks from Italian authorities.

One of the aid groups that has refused to sign the code is Doctors Without Borders (MSF). While it has taken part in many of the rescues of some 95,000 migrants brought to Italy this year, and attended a meeting at the Interior Ministry, MSF objected most strongly to a requirement that aid boats must take migrants to a safe port themselves, rather than transferring people to other vessels, which effectively allows smaller boats to stay in the area for further rescues. In a letter to Interior Minister Marco Minniti, MSF Italy’s director Gabriele Eminente disclosed “our vessels are often overwhelmed by the high number of (migrant) boats…and life and death at sea is a question of minutes.” He continued that “the code of conduct puts at risk this fragile equation of collaboration between different boats,” adding that MSF still wanted to work with the ministry to improve sea rescues. Germany’s Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet as well as France’s SOS Mediterranee have abstained. MSF, SOS Mediterranee and Jugend Rettet have also called for clarity on the rules and took issue with a clause in the code, which would oblige groups to accept police officers on board. Jugend Rettet coordinator Titus Mokenbur disclosed, “for us the most controversial point…was the commitment to help the Italian police with their investigations and possible take armed police officers on board,” adding “this is antithetical to the humanitarian principles of neutrality that we adhere to, and we cannot be seen as being part of the conflict.”

Save the Children has given its backing to the code, stating that it already complied with most of the rules and would monitor closely to be sure that applying them did not obstruct their work. After the meeting, Save the Children Italy director Valerio Neri disclosed, “we would not have signed if even one single point would have compromised our effectiveness. This is not the case, not one single point of the code will hinder our activities.” Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms have also agreed to the conditions.