Sea rescue in the Mediterranean: Refugees as a pawn

Italy’s fight against civil sea rescue is entering a new round. Four EU member states are now demanding stricter treatment of NGO ships.

People are holding signs from a ship's hatch

In the port of Catania, migrants on board draw attention to themselves Photo: Massimo di Nonno/ap

BERLIN taz | The four EU member states Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus made a joint statement to the EU at the weekend and complained about the current handling of civil sea rescue. The “modus operandi” does not correspond to the spirit of the international legal framework for search and rescue operations, the letter said. As a result, the newly elected prime minister resigned Georgia Meloni further measures against NGO ships. However, she did not elaborate on exactly what these should look like.

“Each state must actually exercise its jurisdiction and control over the ships sailing under its flag,” the four countries demand in their statement to the EU. The states accuse civil sea rescue of not carrying out their operations in coordination with the responsible authorities. The EU Commission and the Council Presidency are to take “necessary steps” to ensure that there is a discussion about the future of such operations.

Over the past three weeks, more than a thousand people have been waiting on various NGO ships to be assigned a safe port off Italy. When the Italian government again refused assignment to the SOS Mediterranee ship “Ocean Viking” with 234 people on board at the beginning of last week, finally docked the ship in the French port city of Toulon.

The atmosphere between Italy and France has been tense ever since. Paris then responded with action. In addition to increased border controls on the French-Italian border, France also announced that it would withdraw from the voluntary distribution agreement – France will therefore not take in 3,500 people from Italy over the next year for the time being.

Refugees back at the mercy of the EU countries

French Foreign Minister Catherine Collona told the French newspaper “Le Parisien” that “Italy respects neither international law nor shipping law”. She emphasized that the inclusion of the “Ocean Viking” was only an exception and should not convey the image that France will receive NGO ships in the future if Italy refuses to allocate them.

Civil sea rescue organizations have been deployed in the Mediterranean for years, including German ships. Just last week, the ship Nadir from the Hamburg association Resqship rescued over 350 people in distress at sea within 48 hours. In order to bring people safely to shore, the ships need to be assigned a safe harbor by the responsible authorities. In recent years, ships have been able to dock in Italy after days of waiting. With the change of government in Italy, civil sea rescue has become the target of the fascist government.

At the same time, last Friday the German government promised financial support for civil sea rescue for the first time, amounting to eight million euros per year. The fronts within the EU harden day by day when it comes to the issue of migration, refugees are once again at the mercy of the EU states. An uncertain time has begun for sea rescue due to the new Italian leadership. The last few weeks are probably only a foretaste of what the NGOs and the refugees can expect in the coming year.

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