Sunday, July 30, 2017

Thwarting the rescuers

Italy is attempting to impose a code of conduct on NGOs operating ships in the search and rescue zone off the coast of LibyaAid workers have accused the EU of “wilfully letting people drown in the Mediterranean” as they face being forced to suspend rescue missions for refugees attempting the world’s deadliest sea crossing. Humanitarian groups have argued the code will impede their work by banning the transfer of refugees to larger ships, which allows vessels to continue rescues, and forcing them to allow police officers on board. Charities fear any move to restrict their operations, leaving just Italian coastguard and naval ships, will dramatically reduce rescue capacity during peak season.

The 11-point plan, which has been approved by the European Commission and border agency Frontex, could see any groups refusing to sign up denied access to Italian ports or forbidden from carrying out rescues.

Amnesty International characterised the code of conduct as part of a “concerted smear campaign” against NGO rescue ships.

German charity Sea-Watch's CEO, Axel Grafmanns, explained “The EU is wilfully letting people drown in the Mediterranean by refusing to create a legal means of safe passage and failing to even provide adequate resources for maritime rescue.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said “MSF employees are humanitarian workers, not police officers, and that for reasons of independence they will do what is strictly requested by the law but nothing more so as to protect our independence and neutrality,” a spokesperson said. The charity opposed a commitment compelling vessels to notify multiple states if they leave designated search and rescue zones, which it said could cause deaths by delaying rescues, and said the ability to transfer migrants to larger ships and continue operations was “crucial to saving lives”. “The inefficient back and forth of all rescue ships to disembarkation points will consequently lead to a decrease in the presence of rescue vessels,” a MSF spokesperson said.

Refugees have told of horrific abuses at the hands of both state security forces and Libyan gangs, including seeing other migrants being beaten to death and raped, and being “sold” between owners until they can escape over the Mediterranean. 

A House of Lords report branded the EU’s Operation Sophia anti-smuggling mission a “failure” on all counts, saying it “has not in any meaningful way deterred the flow of migrants, disrupted the smugglers’ networks, or impeded the business of people smuggling”. The committee concluded that the mission was driving refugee deaths by destroying smugglers’ boats and forcing them to switch to unseaworthy dinghies, and raised concern over reports of “serious abuses of the human rights of migrants by the Libyan coastguard”, which is being trained by the UK and equipped by the EU as it seeks to gradually unburden itself of responsibility for rescues.

The UN has warned of widespread torture, kidnap, ransom, arbitrary detention, rape, forced labour and “slave auctions” in Libya, where people smugglers have set up a lucrative business in the continuing conflict. Unicef found that most children making the crossing did not intend to travel to Europe when they left home, with the journey taking up to two years. Children interviewed in Italy said they fled their home countries for reasons including conflict, poverty and child marriage, frequently being drawn to Libya by the promise of work but finding “systematic trauma and abuse”. Almost half of children said they were kidnapped for ransom in Libya, and a quarter held in prison without charges. 

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