More than 1,300 migrants were rescued in the central Mediterranean on Wednesday. 380 migrants currently wait on board two private rescue ships for somewhere to disembark, but the new Italian government is threatening to ban rescue ships from entering Italian waters.
More than 1,100 migrants were rescued in operations off Sicily, in southern Italy, which were carried out by the Italian coast guard, the financial and border police (Guardia di Finanza) and a Spanish operated Frontex vessel on Wednesday (October 26).
The coast guard brought in 663 migrants from a boat around 60 miles off Sicily, according to various news agencies and Italian newspapers, including Reuters and La Repubblica. Two bodies were reportedly also found on the boat.
Another fishing boat, reported Reuters, had 494 migrants on board, who were also rescued and brought to land.
414 on board private rescue ships awaiting a safe harbor
Also on Wednesday, the crew of the Ocean Viking reported they had picked up an additional 138 migrants from two rescues.
There were 234 migrants on board that ship as of Wednesday evening, according to a tweet from SOS Mediterranée, which operates the ship.
Another private rescue ship currently in the central Mediterranean, the Humanity 1, carried out several rescues earlier in the week. It currently has 180 migrants on board.
SOS Humanity, the organization that operates the ship, tweeted on Thursday morning that between October 23 and October 27 they had made four requests for a safe harbor to the "relevant authorities, including search and rescue coordinators in Malta and Italy" but had "so far remained without success."
64 people 'in distress' off Libya
On Thursday, October 27, the organization Alarm Phone -- which monitors migrant crossings across the Mediterranean -- put out another distress call. According to Alarm Phone, 64 people were "in distress" off Libya after fleeing Khoms. "They report their rubber boat is sinking," tweeted Alarm Phone.
Earlier in the week, another boat purportedly carrying around 90 people was also flagged by Alarm Phone. The organization said the boat was in the Maltese Search and Rescue zone but that the migrants were "intercepted by the so-called Libyan coast guard."
On Wednesday, Sea-Watch -- another migrant rescue organization -- released pictures and a video that reportedly showed the Libyan coast guard bringing migrants from an overcrowded rubber dinghy on board and then setting fire to the boat.
Sea-Watch alleged that this incident had taken place in the Maltese rescue zone and that someone from the Libyan coast guard threatened the crew of its aircraft that captured the pictures.
Mild October weather has increased the numbers of crossings in the last few weeks. Around 80,000 migrants have arrived in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, according to recent figures from the Italian interior ministry.
Also read: Sea-Watch said Libya threatens to shoot down their plane
Arrivals in Italy
Figures for September of this year show that arrivals almost doubled compared to the same month in 2021. The vast majority of this year’s arrivals are nationals from Egypt (16,371), Tunisia (16,292) and Bangladesh (11,510).
Since the new Italian government took office this week, they have made a number of pronouncements which indicate they hope to get tougher on immigration. On October 26, the new Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi issued a statement regarding private rescue ships.
In it, he said that he had asked the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform the German and Norwegian ambassadors, as representatives of the states who issued the flags under which the two ships, Ocean Viking and Humanity 1, sail, that the "conduct of the ships Ocean Viking and Humanity 1 are not in line with the spirit of European and Italian regulations on security, border control and the fight against illegal immigration."
Plan to ban entry of private rescue ships
Piantedosi added that he would be assessing the two ships "conduct under Article 19 of the United Nations International Convention on the Law of the Sea –in order to adopt a ban on entry into territorial waters."
Also read: New Italian Interior Minister says governing migration a priority
The Interior Minister used to be chief of staff under League Leader Matteo Salvini when he held the office of Interior Minister back in 2018 and 2019. At that time too, Italy instigated several long stand-offs against private rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) party has also repeatedly spoken out against immigration. In her first speech in the Italian parliament, she also said she would like to stop people crossing the Mediterranean by sea and said that she would stop people entering the country "illegally."
Since Friday, at least five migrants reportedly died on route to Italy, including a new-born baby off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
Italy-Libya deal, due for renewal on November 2
On November 2, the Italy-Libya deal is due for renewal. Humanitarian groups have been organizing protests in cities across Italy, asking the government to end the deal, which provides funding and training for the Libyan coast guard in return for them attempting to block migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.
Over 40 organizations, including Save the Children, Amnesty International and Doctors without Borders (MSF), have signed a letter asking for the deal to be scrapped.
On October 24, Italian investigative journalist Duccio Facchini -- director of the Italian magazine Altreconomia -- reported that in the spring, Italy spent €6.65 million on 14 new speedboats for the Libyan coast guard.
Facchini said that the tender for the process had been operated by an agency working for the Minister of the Economy in Italy. He said the boats were paid for through a mixtures of funds from the EU, Italy and the European Trust Fund for Africa.
The 14 speedboats bought with the money, reported Facchini, are capable of speeds of at least 30 knots and can cover areas of 200 nautical miles. The Italy-Libya agreement was first signed in 2017 and has been renewed ever since. According to the UN Migration Agency, IOM, between 2016 and 2022, the Libyan coast guard is estimated to have intercepted more than 120,000 people at sea and brought them back to Libya.
With Reuters, Ansa, AFP