Following a year of investigations, controversy, a code of conduct and judicial seizures, NGOs are withdrawing from the Mediterranean. Of 12 humanitarian ships formerly engaged in migrants search and rescue operations only one is still active.
These are tough times for NGOs performing search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. They face two major risks: hostility from the Libyan coast guard in open water, including threats with guns blazing; and seizures ordered by the judicial authorities on arrival in Italy, as in the case of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. So it is that a year after the number of humanitarian ships operating in the central Mediterranean reached a peak of 12, just one is left.
In the middle of all this is the controversial code of conduct introduced by the Italian Interior Ministry. And with the imminent start of the fair weather season and the consequent likely increase in migrant departures from north Africa, the prospects for NGOs dedicated to saving lives at sea do not look much better.
Investigations and rules
There was a time last spring when 35% of migrants rescued at sea were picked up by NGO ships. At that point the Italian government, parliament and judicial authorities intervened to stem the phenomenon. The 'offensive' was launched in February 2017 by Catania prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro (the same magistrate who ordered the recent seizure of the Open Arms vessel), who opened a probe into the sea rescues. There followed an investigation by the Senate defence committee that resulted in an invitation to block "the humanitarian corridors managed independently by NGOs."
Then at the end of July Italy's interior minister Marco Minniti introduced the code of conduct introducing new restrictions on NGO activities in the Mediterranean, which some organisations such as MSF refused to sign. At the same time the Libyan coast guard stepped up its patrols, thanks also to motorboats donated by Italy, defining its SAR area. At this point the withdrawal of humanitarian vessels began.
The NGOs that have abandoned the Mediterranean
In early August 2017 the Iuventa operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet was seized by prosecutors in Trapani. The same office ordered a search of the Vos Hestia operated by Save the children, which then withdrew from operations in the Mediterranean. MOAS took the same decision, while there were several reports of 'incidents' between humanitarian ships and the Libyan coast guard. Sea Eye has also suspended its activities, saying that it could resume operations next week.
The ship operated by Sea Watch is currently berthed in Spain, although the organisation says it intends to continue its rescue missions in the central Mediterranean. This leaves only the Aquarius operated by Sos Mediterranee-MSF. "After a few days in port to refuel and change crew Aquarius is preparing to return to international waters as the weather conditions improve. The SosMedItalia teams are ready to save lives."