A boat intercepted by the Italian finance police of Porto Empedocle in waters off the coast of the town of Realmonte, after numerous Tunisians disembarked from the vessel. Photo ANSA/FINANCE POLICE PRESS OFFICE
A boat intercepted by the Italian finance police of Porto Empedocle in waters off the coast of the town of Realmonte, after numerous Tunisians disembarked from the vessel. Photo ANSA/FINANCE POLICE PRESS OFFICE

Some migrants told the crew of the Aquarius that migrant boats may refuse rescue by NGO ships in order to avoid being stuck at sea for days while awaiting a safe port to disembark.

Some migrant boats may now refuse rescue assistance from NGO ships in the Mediterranean, fearing being stuck at sea for days following the closing of ports to migrants by Italy and Malta. Migrants may decide that it makes more sense for them to risk their lives at sea in the attempt to independently reach land, rather than being rescued by a humanitarian aid ship that then gets blocked for days without a safe port for disembarkation.

This is what 15 Tunisians told the crew of the Aquarius, an NGO ship that intercepted the boat they were travelling on, just off the coast of Lampedusa. There is no official confirmation, however, because the Tunisians did not tell this to the Italian Coast Guard crew that rescued them and transported them to the island. Instead, they told the Coast Guard they had left yesterday from Libya and travelled at a sustained speed until they ran out of gas, in the hopes of reaching Italy. 

Traffickers adapting business following port closures 

What is certain, however, and what has been confirmed by various signs seen in recent months, is that organizations that manage human trafficking in northern Africa are adapting their practices based on what is happening in Italy and Europe. 

Decisions being taken into account on the other side of the Mediterranean include the implementation of a Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone, the absence of NGO ships at the edges of territorial waters, and the Italian tightening down of ports. 

These decisions are determining how traffickers decide on their priorities, routes, and the types of boats to use. It's therefore not by chance that Spain has become the chosen route, as confirmed by UNHCR figures, which show that since the start of the year through July, 23,500 people have disembarked in Spain compared to 18,500 in Italy and 16,000 in Greece. 

The flow of migrant departures is moving from Libya to Tunisia, with small boats from Tunisia headed for Italy on the rise. Departures are also moving away from western Africa through Algeria, towards the Moroccan coasts. Another route that has seen a sudden rise is that of Turkish coasts towards Italy. That route is being covered with sailboats, which attract less suspicion and are subject to fewer controls. Hundreds of migrants have already arrived in the Italian regions of Puglia and Calabria through this route. 

Boats changing 

It's not just the routes that are changing, but also the vessels used. In recent months, unstable and dangerous rubber boats - made with just one air chamber and hardly able to navigate further than the confines of Libyan territorial waters, where international ships were there to rescue migrants - have been substituted in part by two different types of boats. One type is large fishing boats, the same type that in 2011 brought to Lampedusa thousands of Tunisians fleeing the Arab Spring. They are able to transport as many as 500 people. 

The second type is small fiberglass boats, which are quick and can escape Libyan patrol boats more rapidly. This was the type of vessel used in the August 12 rescue, in which the boat ran out of gas just a few miles off the coast of Lampedusa. 
 

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