It's been one year since Italy announced it was closing its ports to humanitarian vessels. Since then, at least 1,151 men, women and children have been reported dead while over 10,000 have been forcibly taken back to Libya and exposed to further suffering, SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) say. They want EU states to change their policies.
The two NGOs operate the search and rescue vessel Aquarius together. One year ago, Italy refused to let the ship dock. At the time, the vessel was carrying over 600 migrants. After a long stalemate, Spain decided to let the ship dock in Valencia's port
. Since then, Italian authorities have repeatedly refused to let migrant rescue boats dock.
Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior ministry has made reducing migration to Italy a top priority. Recently, a decree was introduced that would see NGO migrant rescue boats fined for entering Italian ports
SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) want the EU and Italy to change their policies in the Mediterranean. They want the governments to guarantee an adequate search-and-rescue mission, "including a coordination of competent authorities in the Mediterranean sea to avoid useless deaths."
After the Aquarius case, 'the impasse is the new rule'
"The impasse has become the new rule in the central Mediterranean, with over 18 documented incidents [since the Aquarius was refused the permission to dock],"
SOS and MSF said. The two organizations claim that rescue ships have been blocked from ports for a total of 140 days. This allegedly left 2,443 migrants, including women and children, stranded at sea "while European leaders decided their future."
SOS and MSF say this has not only made it harder for pro-migrant NGO boats to rescue people. They said: "Commercial and even military vessels are increasingly more reluctant in rescuing people in danger due to the high risk of being blocked at sea or being denied disembarkment at a safe port. Merchant ships carrying out rescue operations, in particular, have an extremely complicated time if they are blocked or forced to take people back to Libya, against international law."
Number of people trying to flee Libya grows
A growing number of people have tried to flee war-torn Libya. In the last six weeks alone, over 3,800 people reportedly attempted the crossing to Europe on unsafe boats, according to MSF and SOS.
''The absence of humanitarian ships in the central Mediterranean in this period shows the lack of foundation of the attraction factor," said Frédéric Penard, director of operations of SOS Mediterranee. "Even with an increasingly lower number of humanitarian ships at sea, people with few alternatives will continue to attempt this deadly crossing, regardless of the risks. The only difference now is that these people are now running a risk of dying that is four times higher compared to last year, according for the International Organization for Migration."