Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, Italy, in front of the Sea Watch 4 | Photo: ANSA/Ignazio Marchese
Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, Italy, in front of the Sea Watch 4 | Photo: ANSA/Ignazio Marchese

The mayor of the southern Italian city of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, has called for the creation of a European civil service to rescue migrants at sea, following several deadly shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando told Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenir that "the time has come to set up a European civil service to rescue migrants at sea" in an interview published on May 4.

Orlando proposed that a service called "Recs, the Research European civil service" could oversee search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, between northern Africa and southern Europe.

He called for a "collaboration between European cities, NGOs and charities, under the sponsorship of the European Union."

Recs would "create with civil society what the Navy did with the Mare Nostrum [operation] when military vessels were not used to push back migrants to Libyan detention centers, but to rescue them," Orlando said.

Rescue migrants between Libya and Italy

Italy set up the Mare Nostrum operation after roughly 400 migrants were killed in two shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa in the fall of 2013, to rescue migrants from boats in distress between Italy and Libya. The mission reportedly saved 400 migrants stuck in the Mediterranean per day. But the operation was controversial: Some argued that it was "pull factor", encouraging more migrants to set sails for Europe. Mare Nostrum ended after just one year in November 2014.

In the Avvenir interview, Orlando also announced that he was planning to host a conference for pro-migrant cities in June to put pressure on European officials. "Together with the mayor of Potsdam, in Germany, I have organized an international congress called 'From the sea to the city' -- a conference of cities for a welcoming Europe -- here in Palermo on June 25 and 26," he said. He added that the goal was to "send a strong message of values to the European Commission and the European Parliament to take charge of a European civil rescue service."

Pro-migrant mayor

Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando -- currently a member of the left-leaning Democratic Party (PD) -- has often promoted pro-migrant views and policies. He has protested against the closure of ports to migrant rescue NGO ships and awarded migrant rescuers honorary citizenships.

In 2019, he was one of several mayors who refused to implement policies in line with the security decree introduced by then-interior minister Matteo Salvini, registering asylum seekers as full residents. In June 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled that the regulation Orlando had refused to follow was unconstitutional.


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