A picture taken as one of 73 migrants disembarks the MSF-run ship Geo Barents in the port of Ancona on January 12 | Photo: @MSF_Sea Twitter feed
A picture taken as one of 73 migrants disembarks the MSF-run ship Geo Barents in the port of Ancona on January 12 | Photo: @MSF_Sea Twitter feed

The crew of the Geo Barents rescue ship completed the disembarkation of the 73 rescued migrants in the Italian port of Ancona on Thursday. The ship is the second NGO ship to dock in the port this week.

"Rescue completed", announced the crew of the Geo Barents rescue ship on Twitter on Thursday, January 12. Pictures showed some of the 73 rescued migrants walking down the gangplank towards land.

"The 73 survivors, including 19 unaccompanied minors, have finally touched the ground after a long and unecessary journey to Ancona," continued the tweet from the medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) which operates the Geo Barents.

Similarly to the Ocean Viking rescue ship, operated by the private rescue charity SOS Mediterranee, which docked earlier this week in Ancona to disembark a contingent of 37 rescued migrants, the Geo Barents took 4.5 days to sail the extra distance in heavy weather from the central Mediterranean towards Ancona, which is in east-central Italy.

'Three days of extra suffering'

The crew from the Geo Barents said that the extra time taken to get to Ancona meant "three days of extra suffering for Ochek* and the other 72 survivors on board."

Ochek, which is not his real name, they wrote, comes originally from Eritrea and is 21 years old. While still on board, Ochek told the crew he was "not feeling safe" because he felt himself to be "in between two places." He asked the question: "Will we reach land or not?" and expressed the hope that they would arrive in Italy safely, so he could begin to get over the experiences he underwent in Libya.

Crew on the Geo Barents said they were distributing bags to the migrants on board in case they felt sick and that many of them felt cold. Maurizio Debanne, the head of press at MSF told the center-left Italian newspaper La Stampa that he felt the ship was progressing "at walking pace" towards Ancona, and that one of their decks had completely flooded. He added that the situation on board for the migrants post rescue "could have been avoided."

Because of recent bad weather, it took the rescue ships between four and five days to sail to Ancona before disembarking the migrants rescued | Photo: Davide Gennari /ANSA
Because of recent bad weather, it took the rescue ships between four and five days to sail to Ancona before disembarking the migrants rescued | Photo: Davide Gennari /ANSA

New laws governing NGO rescue ships

In fact, the relatively new right-wing Italian government which took over power in October 2022 recently passed a decree, which is still being debated by the lower house before it becomes law, but which is already affecting the work of private rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.

Whereas previously, the ships tended to carry out multiple rescues in their search and rescue zones until there were at least a few hundred migrants on board, before asking for a safe port, now they are obliged to ask for a port of safety after the first rescue.

Since the law was passed, the ports of safety have been assigned to Italian ports much further north than previously, adding on several days sailing time before the ships can disembark and then go back out to the central Mediterranean to complete more rescues.

MSF tweeted on January 10, that "this decision is putting everyone at risk and this situation could have been avoided!"

Arrivals on the increase?

Interestingly, despite pledges from Italy’s current leaders that they would crack down on migration, even promising to create a naval blocade in the Mediterranean or move the hotspots to North Africa, statistics published by the Italian interior ministry seem to show migrant arrivals have in fact been higher in the last two months of 2022 compared to before Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni took office.

In November 2022, marginally fewer migrants arrived compared to the same period in 2021, 9,058 compared to 9,517 but in December, more than double the numbers arrived in 2022 compared to the previous year. In total, in the first two full months of Meloni’s premiership, almost 20,000 migrants arrived in Italy (19,857), compared to 14,051 in the same two months of 2021.

To date in January, despite the new laws, the numbers of migrants arriving in Italy has increased more than ten-fold, from 378 in 2022 to 3,819 in 2023. The latest figures cover the period from January 1 to January 13 at 8am.

Claims and counter-claims

However, according to the European broadcaster Euronews, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi told Italian TV that in fact the "growth curve [of boat arrivals] had declined." He claimed that any apparent increase was due to milder weather and that the data was only "partial." Euronews reported that "no further comment" had come from the Interior Ministry, although they had been approached to comment on the 881% increase in January.

His claims have been disputed by many, among them, the Italian journalist and human rights campaigner Roberto Saviano, who has written numerous exposés on organized crime in Italy, most notably about the Camorra in his home region of Campania and the city of Naples. On his Twitter feed on January 11, Saviano stated that Piantedosi was "lying" about the figures and that NGO ships were creating a "pull factor" and that the situation "needed managing in all its complexity, and all the rest is propaganda."

In fact, many of the arrivals registered on the Italian interior ministry website don’t come after disembarkation via a private rescue ship, but are actually either arriving under their own steam or rescued by the Italian coast guard and Italian border and customs police (Guardia di Finanza) who operate in the central Mediterranean area and are responsible for saving lives at sea.

The newspaper HuffPost Italia published claims from a researcher at the ISPI think tank, Matteo Villa, who stated that "from October 2022, NGOs have rescued less than 10% of migrants who’ve reached Italy." Villa added that in comparison, in 2016 "nearly 45% of migrants who arrived in Italy had been helped by an NGO."

The Diciotti ship of the Italian Coast Guard at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily | Photo: ANSA
The Diciotti ship of the Italian Coast Guard at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily | Photo: ANSA

'Aggravating the issue'

The mayor of Pozzallo, one of the Italian towns which has watched many disembarkations and migrant landings over the years, Roberto Ammatuno, told Euronews that he felt "the government’s battle against NGOs is incomprehensible, and aggravates the issue."

Ammatuno, who was born in Pozzallo, and is a doctor, was elected on the opposition Democratic Party’s list. Ammatuno added that he thought "migration flows from Africa to Europe are inevitable. The problem is complex and requires us to collaborate with European partners –all talks of ‘naval blocades’ and so on are idiotic."

The mayor concluded that in his view "the government isn’t failing to keep its promises because its incapable –it’s failing because the promises can’t be kept in the first place," reported Euronews.

Comparisons to previous administration

On January 11, the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, also published a story about Piantedosi’s claim that migrant arrivals were on a downward curve and said that the data published by his own ministry told another story. La Repubblica added up the numbers of migrants who arrived since the Meloni government took office in October and said that in total 31,454 migrants had arrived, compared to 19,008 during the same period in 2021 under the Draghi government.

Despite the numbers, Piantedosi told the Italian news agency ANSA that he would continue with his policy, saying that "sea rescue operations and actions to control the Mediterranean are carried out by the state and its organizations, finance police and coast guard."

He said his new laws governing the NGO ships would create a "framework of rules," with "the ambition of managing the phenomenon ourselves." The Interior Minister added that he felt he couldn’t "allow private ships, which also have flags of other states, to replace the Italian State."

Piantedosi and other ministers in Meloni's government are said to be busy planning a series of meetings around Europe and the Mediterranean to shore up accords which will make it more difficult for migrants to cross towards Italy. The Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, reports ANSA, is scheduled to travel in the next few weeks to Libya, Tunisia and Turkey.

Tajani held talks with his Tunisian counterpart on January 10, reported ANSA. "I asked the Tunisian government for reassurances that more controls will be carried out on the departure of migrants," said the minister. "We are working and pushing Europe towards common choices, also to make investments in Africa."

*Name is a pseudonym given by MSF to protect his identity


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