The tangled net of regulations that ensnares lifesaving NGOs in the Mediterranean

Migrant rescues have been criminalized, and new laws prevent humanitarian organizations from saving lives

A body floats in the Mediterranean as a boat with Tunisian migrants heads to Lampedusa (Italy).Álvaro García
Lola Hierro

Friday, April 28, 2:06 p.m. Four Astral crewmembers unload a corpse under the watchful eyes of an undertaker, a forensic medical examiner and the Italian Coast Guard. The Astral, the rescue vessel of a Spanish non-governmental organization (NGO) called Open Arms, is moored at the entrance to the harbor on the Italian island of Lampedusa. No one speaks as the corpse is placed in a wooden coffin. The medical examiner unzips the body bag and breaks the silence. “Unrecognizable,” she states. The Astral had the corpse on board for 24 hours. The ship’s cook, Chrys Basso, was the first to spot it in the blue expanse of the central Mediterranean. It didn’t look like the jerrycans and inner tubes that often litter the sea around boat rescues, so Basso picked up his walkie-talkie and asked his shipmates in the Zodiac to look. The answer came back within minutes: “Confirmed. It’s the body of a man.”

Migrants are flooding into Italy in numbers not seen since 2017. Lampedusa’s emergency radio channel is busy 24 hours a day and the Coast Guard is struggling to keep up. Over 46,000 people migrating from North Africa have been rescued this year; 36,000 of them made it to the Italian coast. The upsurge prompted Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government to approve a “state of migratory emergency” in early April that enables it to circumvent parliamentary votes and expedite deportations. “The decree was necessary because [Infrastructure and Transport Minister] Matteo Salvini dismantled the Coast Guard and the migrant intake system,” says Open Arms founder Oscar Camps.

NGOs claim that national regulations bypassing international law are making it impossible for them to work, and that the new Italian government has declared war on them. “Since 2015, our operations were overseen with no problem by [Italy’s] Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (CCRM). We were rescuing up to 4,000 people in one day and no one ever complained. Then it all ended. Now they’re like headless chickens,” says Camps.

As soon as the body was spotted, the Astral crew tried to get a government authority to claim the corpse. They first tried Malta, since the ship was sailing in their waters — no response. Then they tried Italy. “They told us they were busy aiding other boats, so we had to wait,” said the Astral’s chief of mission Esther Camps, after contacting the CCRM. The deceased adult male was wearing an orange coat and an inner tube for flotation. The body was bent forward with its head under water. Because of the body’s advanced state of decomposition, the death must have occurred at least 48 hours earlier. According to the International Organization for Migration, 300 people have died or disappeared in the central Mediterranean Sea in the last 10 days. The body spotted by the Astral adds one more to the grim statistic.

The work of human rights defenders engaged in sea-rescue missions got even harder on January 2 when Italy’s new decree went into effect, drawing criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. One of the decree’s measures assigns distant disembarkation ports for people rescued in the Mediterranean. “We asked to go to Lampedusa, as it was the closest port. But the CCRM assigned us Taranto, 61 hours away. We had to evacuate two people on the way because they were in critical condition,” says Axel Steier, a spokesperson for Mission Lifeline, an NGO that operates the Ocean Viking rescue vessel. SOS Humanity’s Humanity 1 had the same experience when it was ordered to unload its rescues in Ravenna, over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away. Both organizations and Sea-Eye, a German NGO, have initiated legal action against Italy for “the systematic and illegitimate assignment of distant ports,” says their representative, Wasil Schauseil.

57 legal proceedings against NGOs

SOS Humanity’s records (since December 2022) show that they and other organizations were refused permission to take their rescues to Lampedusa or other Sicilian ports closest to the search and rescue zone between Italy, Malta, Tunisia and Libya. “This practice minimizes the time we can be operational, doing the work that these governments have abandoned,” says Juan Matías Gil, the chief of mission for Geo Barents, the rescue ship operated by Doctors Without Borders.

Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian organizations have denounced the practice of “selective” disembarkation, which led to a critical situation in November 2022 when Italian authorities only admitted 357 of the 572 people rescued by the Geo Barents. The port blockade policy — a campaign promise of the Italian far-right — was also in effect, forcing three other NGOs to wait several days for permission to disembark passengers. The four NGOs had picked up 1,080 people at sea. When a similar situation occurred in 2019, Open Arms sued Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, accusing him of “kidnapping” the migrants they had pulled out of the water. The legal proceedings are still ongoing.

Another controversial aspect of the new Italian regulation is that it orders ships to go to port immediately after each rescue. This effectively delays rescue operations, since the ships typically conduct more than one rescue over several days. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has documented 57 legal actions against NGOs engaged in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean from 2016 to June 2022, including detention of staff, administrative sanctions, fines and inspections. Of these cases, 34 ended in acquittal; three resulted in convictions; and 18 are pending. Most were heard in Italian courts, but there are also open cases in Spain, Malta, Greece, Germany and the Netherlands. “These practices violate international maritime law and hamper the provision of humanitarian assistance,” says Gil.

Some say the work of these NGOs attracts even more migrants, but Matteo Vila of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) recently published data showing that the organizations only rescued about 8% of the migrants at sea, which was down from 21% the previous year.

The skipper of the 'Astral', Maitane Carnero, and the captain, Savvas Kourepinis, approach the spot where the lifeless body of a man is floating in order to transport it to the vessel.
The skipper of the 'Astral', Maitane Carnero, and the captain, Savvas Kourepinis, approach the spot where the lifeless body of a man is floating in order to transport it to the vessel. Álvaro García

Paradoxically, all the new restrictions have forced the CCRM to ask NGOs for help for the first time in five years. Most recently, the Astral was asked by the authorities to aid a shipwrecked skiff with 47 people aboard. On April 9, the Italian Coast Guard asked the Nadir, a rescue vessel operated by Resqship, to help them look for a boat. “There were too many calls for help for them to handle,” says Resqship spokesperson Andrea Finker. They saved 22 people and recovered two bodies, but the survivors claimed that 20 more had drowned during the wait. On April 26 and 28, Doctors Without Borders received alerts to help with two more shipwrecks.

Juan Matías Gil believes Italian authorities don’t want any more tragic scenes on their shores, like the 90 people who died when their boat sank off the southern coast of Crotone in February. “It’s very clear that it happened because of negligence, because no one went to rescue them,” says Gil.

A dead body on deck

It took a lot of work for someone to take responsibility for the body recovered by the Astral. The body remained in the water for hours after it was spotted. The CCRM urged Astral’s Captain Savvas Kourepinis to wait because there was much more work to be done rescuing the living. Since it would be hard to monitor the corpse’s location in the dark, the Astral finally got the go-ahead to take it aboard. The recovery operation was difficult, and the body was carefully wrapped and placed on the foredeck.

A few hours later, they received word that an Italian Coast Guard boat was approaching to pick up the body and 21 young Tunisian men rescued by the Astral. But when the Coast Guard arrived in the middle of the night, they refused to take the body and left. Kourepinis again asked for instructions and was ordered to remain in place and locate more boats. The body of the anonymous man spent the night on deck. The next morning, as the radio crackled with unanswered mayday calls, the Astral finally got permission to sail to Lampedusa and deliver the body.

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