The Italian government, determined to stop Africans landing on its soil, has taken a of number fresh initiatives.
It is not difficult to see why, since so many are making the crossing, as this graphic produced for the UNHCR makes clear.
In the past few days the Italian authorities have:
- Issued a new code of conduct for sea rescue missions which will require the presence of armed guards and vessels returning to Italian ports. MSF has refused to sign. [See below]
- Plans for the Italian navy to enter Libyan territorial waters to halt the trafficking. [See below]
- Meanwhile, the French have called for ‘hotspots’ to be established in Libya to process African asylum claims. [See below]
But these initiatives are unlikely to succeed, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. People smuggling through Libya generates annual revenues estimated at between $1 billion and $1.5 billion
The ICG believes there is little prospect of significant progress in halting the numbers attempting to cross into Libya. European Union development plans and political initiatives seem doomed to fail when any truck driver can earn 4 times as much as a local policeman from ferrying migrants.
MSF committed to saving lives on Mediterranean but will not sign the Italian “Code of Conduct”
The international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières formally informed the Italian Ministry of the Interior today that it would not be signing the Code of Conduct for NGOs operating rescue ships on the Mediterranean.
“Although we are unable to sign this code of conduct in its current form, MSF already respects several provisions that are not within the remit of our core concerns, including financial transparency,” said Annemarie Loof, Operations Manager. “MSF will continue to operate its search and rescue activities under the coordination of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) and in accordance with all relevant international and maritime laws.”
Several commitments included in the Code of Conduct could result in a decrease in the efficiency and capacity of the current search and rescue response with dire humanitarian consequences. Proposals – in particular the one stating that vessels engaged in rescue must disembark survivors to a place of safety as a rule instead of transferring to other ships – present unnecessary limitations to the means at our disposal today. Since the start of its operations at sea, MSF has been accepting, sometimes even conducting itself, transfers from other ships onto our vessels. This has always occurred at the request or under the coordination of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.
The back and forth of all the rescue ships to disembarkation points will consequently lead to a decrease in the presence of rescue vessels in the Search and Rescue zone. A reduction in the number of rescue vessels would weaken an already insufficient Search and Rescue capacity, resulting in an increase in mass drownings. Furthermore, elements of unnecessary confusion about whom to contact when that are introduced in the Code could slow rescue operations when minutes can be the difference between life and death.
While the revised Code clarifies that judicial police will act “without prejudice of the ongoing humanitarian activity”, this remains open to interpretation and the request for the police to not be armed has not been adopted. The presence of armed police officers on board and the commitment for humanitarians to collect evidence would be in breach of fundamental humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality. This would subjugate humanitarian aid organisations to the political interests of a European Union member state and is not something that MSF is able to accept as it would impact on access to populations in danger everywhere in the world as well as the security of our teams.
The responsibility to conduct search and rescue operations at sea lies with states. Rescue activities by non-governmental actors such as MSF are merely a temporary measure aimed at gap-filling the ‘vacuum of responsibility’ left by states. European Member States must set up a dedicated and proactive search and rescue mechanism to support Italy and recognize the country’s laudable efforts to save lives at sea in the face of an insufficient response from other European Member States.
A mission plan should be brought to the Cabinet for approval on Friday, and the necessary parliamentary vote to endorse it may be held next week, the source said.
“The exact number of ships and sailors is still being worked out,” said the source. If parliament approves, the mission might begin by the end of August, he said.
Amid mixed signals from Tripoli over whether Libya would allow the deployment, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni met with military chiefs and ministers on Thursday to discuss “security, immigration and the Libyan situation”, according to a statement.
Some 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea from North Africa since 2014, making immigration a potent political issue and putting the country under increasing pressure to manage the new arrivals.
Most have embarked from Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity in the turmoil that has gripped the country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Gentiloni told reporters the mission was “a possible turning point”.
Details of the plan will be presented to parliament on Tuesday, he said.
In a letter sent on Sunday that Gentiloni outlined on Wednesday, Libya’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli invited Italian warships into its territorial waters. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj was in Italy for the announcement of the plan on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Gentiloni said he had spoken to several European “colleagues” who supported the mission. “It pleases me to know there is a lot of support in Europe to this new possibility,” he said.
Despite Serraj’s visit, Libya’s presidential council in Tripoli on Thursday denied it had given permission for Italian forces to be in Libyan waters and warned sovereignty was a red line.
“What was agreed with Italy was the completion of the program supporting the coast guards to train and prepare them with armed capabilities and equipment for saving lives of migrants, and to confront criminal organizations,” it said.
“….National sovereignty is a red line that cannot be passed.”
The council gave no explanation for the conflicting positions. But Libya’s U.N.-backed presidential council is split and Serraj has struggled in a country where rival factions have steadily battled for control since Gaddafi’s fall.
In the past, officials have backtracked on statements that appear to impact Libya’s sovereignty, such as counter-terrorism cooperation, as they come under pressure from rivals at home.
Tripoli had in the past refused access to its waters to the European Union’s anti-trafficking sea mission Sophia since 2015, hobbling efforts to stop smugglers.
A command ship heading a flotilla of at least five smaller vessels and up to 1,000 sailors will be used in the mission, newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on Thursday. Planes, helicopters and drones will also be used, it said.
The rules of engagement, the area of coastline to be patrolled and the nature of cooperation with Libya’s security forces have yet to be defined, the source said.
One thing is clear: Italy wants migrants picked up by its ships – should the Libyan coastguard not be able to intervene directly – to be returned to Libya and not taken to Italy.
“This all makes sense only if we can limit the arrival of migrants in Italy,” the source said.
Migrants who reach international waters are brought to Italy because Libya is not considered safe for refugees, and returning them there would be a violation of international non-refoulement law.
Because the Libyan coastguard returns migrants to detention centers where they are held indefinitely in “inhuman” conditions, according to the United Nations, Italy wants U.N. agencies to bolster their presence there and to operate migrant camps that respect human rights, the source said.
Emmanuel Macron says France will set up refugee ‘hotspots’ in Libya
Sunday 30 July 2017 15:05 BST
French President Emmanuel Macron has announced his intention to set-up “hotspots” to handle asylum requests in Libya, where thousands are fleeing fighting in the country.
He said he hopes the plan will deter people from taking “crazy risks” and attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
He made the remark on the sideline of a visit to a refugee centre in Orleans this week, before he presided over a citizenship ceremony.
“The idea is to create hotspots in Libya so people avoid taking crazy risks when they are not eligible for asylum. We’ll go to get them,” Mr Macron told reporters.
His comments followed a speech to a group of new citizens in Orleans, in which he said that France wanted to create ways for Africans to seek asylum in safe countries “on African soil” to avoid dangerous journeys across the sea to Europe.
He said that for many, Europe “from the start is impossible to attain,” adding: “I hope that the European Union, and at least France, will be able to treat asylum seekers as close to their country of origin as possible.
“As I speak to you, between 800,000 and one million women and men are waiting in camps in Libya.”
However, he later downplayed the plans, saying there were no question of “hotspots” in Libya if “security conditions are not met” – and that currently they were not.
A source in Mr Macron’s entourage later told the Associated Press the plan included “advance points” in Libya, as well as neighbouring Niger and Chad.
They added that the work would be overseen by French and international organisations.
A recent report from the UN refugee agency noted that 90 per cent of the 181,400 people who irregularly reached Italy by sea in 2016, departed from Libya.
By mid-May this year, an 30 per cent increase from the same period last year had already been reported.
Mr Macron wants France to play a bigger role in persuading Libya’s factions to end the country’s political crisis and armed conflict that has has allowed Islamist militants to gain a foothold, and migrant smugglers to flourish in the absence of a strong central government.
Earlier his week, the French President also welcomed Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the UN-backed government in Tripoli and General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, which controls the eastern part of the country.
They saw both men commit to a conditional cease fire and to work towards holding fresh elections next spring.