MS Risk Blog

Italy Drafts Contested Code of Conduct for NGO Migrant Boats

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An official disclosed last week that the Italian government, which is looking to stem a flow of migrants into the country, has drawn up a draft code of conduct for non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that operate in the Mediterranean Sea.

Sources have indicated that the 11-point plan is expected to be presented in the coming days to some nine NGO’s who regularly deploy rescue boats to international waters just off the coast of Libya. Amongst the points included in the proposed new rules will be a ban on making phone calls or firing flares that may signal to human traffickers that they could push their migrant boats out to sea. Furthermore, the NGO vessels will also be obliged to let police travel with them to help root out any human traffickers hidden amongst the migrants. Additionally, the boats will no longer be allowed to transfer refuges to other ships, but will instead have to bring them to port themselves, a move that will limit their operations. The code of conduct will also include a categorical ban on NGO’s entering Libyan waters unless human life is clearly in danger. If any group refuses to accept the terms, they risk being barred access to ports in Italy – effectively meaning that they would have to divert to other countries to disembark any migrants.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), which received a leaked draft of the Italian document, have already warned that the proposals could have a disastrous impact on NGO missions operating in the Mediterranean. According to Iverna McGowan, a senior director with Amnesty International, “attempts to restrict NGO search and rescue operations risk endangering thousands of lives by limiting rescue boats from accessing the perilous waters near Libya.”

According to the latest data, which was released by the Italian Interior Ministry on 12 July, some 85,217 migrants have come to Italy so far this year. In all, more than 600,000 newcomers, the majority from sub-Sahara Africa, have reached Italy over the past four years, with tens of thousands more expected to arrive in the coming months. A small flotilla of charity boats have become increasingly important in rescue operations, with the Italian coastguard reporting that they have picked up more than a third of all migrants brought ashore so far this year, against less than one percent in 2014. Rome however now suspects that their presence just outside Libyan territorial waters encourages migrants to risk their lives and go out to sea. This has been denied by NGO’s, who maintain that thousands more would die if their boats were not present in the southern Mediterranean. Since 2014, more than 13,000 people are estimated to have drowned trying to make the dangerous crossing to Italy.

While viewing the NGO’s with increasing suspicion, the Italian government has also grown frustrated with allies within the European union (EU), stating that they are not doing enough in order to help tackle the crisis, including by taking in many more of the new arrivals. On Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Palo Gentiloni, who is looking to improve cooperation amongst EU partners, met with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Sources however have indicated that there was no sign of any pledges to help relieve the pressure on Italy. Speaking to reports, Prime Minister Gentiloni stated, “progress has been made regarding migration policy, but it is not yet sufficient.”