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Mediterranean: Italy closes its ports to migrants and violates the law of the sea (V3)

(B2) Rescue conditions in the Mediterranean are getting tougher. Italy closes the door to migrants rescued at sea. Other European countries say nothing, leaving Rome to manage the situation alone

629 people rescued during the night from Saturday to Sunday by the Aquarius while waiting for a disembarkation port

For two days, theAquarius, the ship chartered by the NGO SOS Méditerranée, wandered at sea with 629 migrants on board (including 7 pregnant women, 11 young children and 123 unaccompanied minors) collected during six operations, without Italy or Malta, however, is very close by and does not want to welcome them.

Relief coordinated by the MRCC

It all started on Saturday (June 9), at 7 a.m., when the NGO ship received instructions from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) to head towards the Farwah oil zone, around which boats in distress had been reported. But first aid had already been started by the Italian coast guard and a merchant ship, the MV Asso Ventiquattro, closer. And the NGO ship was sent, early in the afternoon, to two boats in distress, each carrying around 120 people.

Two critical rescues

The rescue, which began at the end of the afternoon, more than 50 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, was particularly difficult. Both inflatable boats were in poor condition. When it was already dark, one of the two canoes broke, dragging dozens of people into the water. In critical conditions, the rescuers nevertheless managed to recover 229 survivors brought back on board.

A transshipment of the Italian Coast Guard

THEAquarius then served as a reception platform, as is often the case at sea (1), for other refugees picked up by Italian ships. It thus recovered around 280 survivors on board Italian coast guard vessels: 129 people from CP 312, then 64 others from CP 319 and 88 from CP 267 (some recovered directly by the coast guard, others coming from merchant ships which had then been transferred to the coast guard ship). Already well loaded, theAquarius finally took care of 119 new shipwrecked people transhipped from the Italian merchant ship MV Jolly Vanadio, with the help of ITS San Giusto, the Italian Navy ship commanding the European operation EUNAVFOR Med / Sophia.

A refusal to disembark

However, neither Italy nor Malta authorized the NGO ship to disembark the shipwrecked people. For the new Italian government, led by G. Conte, it is a textbook case, just to show the new 'hard' policy. For the Valletta government, this rescue took place in the Libyan zone (2)… effectively managed by the IMRCC. So it's up to the Italians to make do.

No time to wait!

« This is an unprecedented and worrying situation which must not continue because, with 629 people on board, we already far exceed our maximum reception capacity. The safety and care of survivors on board cannot be ensured for more than a few hours. “, reacted Monday morning the president of SOS Mediterranean, Francis Vallat. " We cannot imagine that political concerns prevail over the humanitarian situation of these hundreds of people who have just been saved from certain drowning, and who have just left the Libyan hell. ».

A change in the rules

An alarm which is not the first. For several months now, the rules of the game have been changing in the Mediterranean. Tensions are increasing between the NGOs responsible for rescuing migrants and the Italian authorities in particular. Several humanitarian workers accuse the deliberate choice of authorities to only open remote ports to disembark survivors, or to force them to disembark rescued passengers even though they still have the capacity to save other migrants in distress. According to NGOs, all this has no other aim than to suffocate and exhaust them.

Political escalation

The arrival of two parties today at the head of the government (the Northern League and the 5 Star Movement), both claiming to break with the welcoming policy pursued in recent years, has only 'accelerate the blockage. For them, Italy must no longer assume the solidarity that other European states willingly give it. Matteo Salvini, head of the Northern League (nationalist right), had promised: he would stop the flow of illegal immigrants arriving in Italy. Became Minister of the Interior (Read: A new Italian government, at last! Ministries of Strength), he decided to put his promises into practice by refusing to welcome migrants in a port on the peninsula.

And now, NATO on the “southern front”?

Matteo Salvini does not hesitate to speak of a “southern front” requesting help from NATO. “ I would like the international organizations of which we are part and to which we contribute financially and which are defense organizations, to ensure Italian and European security in the Mediterranean", he said on Friday, arriving at the council of ministers, according to The newspaper. " The only permanent aggression we suffer from comes from the Mediterranean, I don't think it'sis an attack from Russia » he added, worrying about “ terrorist infiltrations » with the arrival of thousands of migrants.

The Commission recalls the right

Questioned by the press, during the midday point on Monday (June 11), the European Commission wanted a " early settlement " of the situation, " so that those on board the Aquarius vessel can be safely disembarked as soon as possible ", as the chief spokesperson of the European executive Margaritis Schinas clarified, speaking of " humanitarian imperative ».

The responsibility of the country that coordinates the relief

On the merits, however, the European executive refuses to decide. “ This is a question of international law », recalls the spokesperson in charge of migration, Natasha Bertaud, admitting that “ in reality, the situation is anything but clear ". As she explains, “ under international law, the decision of where a boat should disembark falls within the jurisdiction of the country that is coordinating the search and rescue operation » (Editor's note: in this case, the IMRCC of Rome). It is up to him to indicate the “safe port” where to dock. But this does not mean that it is a port of his country.

Spain opens its port of Valencia

Spain announced this afternoon that it would welcome the ship carrying the 629 survivors by opening its port of Valencia: “ It is our obligation to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe and provide a 'safe harbor' for these people “, indicates the new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on his account Twitter. A 'except who can' welcomed by the NGO. Even if this forces the ship to travel more than 1300 km… while the food reserves are almost exhausted.

Malta makes a humanitarian gesture

Malta will therefore send fresh supplies » to the 629 migrants forced to spend another night on board theAquarius. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat confirmed this Monday (June 11) in the afternoon on his twitter account. THE'Aquarius was thus resupplied in the afternoon by a Maltese navy ship. He received 950 bottles of water, 800 packets of noodles and snacks. But, indicates the NGO, “ despite this afternoon's supply, the food stock will only allow one meal to be distributed tomorrow. And the Aquarius is still awaiting instructions from the relevant maritime authorities ».

Corsica in home position

The president of the Corsican assembly, Jean-Guy Talamoni, in turn, announced Monday evening the Corsican desire to welcome the ship. “ Europe must deal with the humanitarian question in solidarity. Given the location of the ship and the urgency, my opinion is that it would be natural to open a Corsican port to help these people in distress. “, he said on Twitter. The French authorities had still not reacted officially as of Tuesday morning.

An accompaniment by the Italian Navy

The epilogue was written this morning. The Aquarius continues its route towards the port of Valencia, designated a 'safe port' by the IMRCC. Two Italian Navy and Coast Guard vessels will accompany theAquarius until its journey to Spain (approximately 4 days). More than half of the survivors will be transhipped, during the journey, on these Italian ships, in order to avoid overload. The IMRCC Rome confirmed this to theNGO. This morning, a second supply of food products and essential goods was carried out by the Italian maritime authorities (200 kg of oranges, 2 rolls, 400 boxes of tea, 100 kg of sugar, but also blankets, hats and socks).

Comment: a serious breach of the law of the sea

This new case confirms a trend observed in recent weeks (Read: The OpenArms released. Order of the Judge of Ragusa). Italy, which has already (under the previous government of P. Gentiloni) withdrawn all automatic reception and limited the action of NGOs, no longer wants to be the only one to support migrants and refugees recovered at sea off the coast of Libya. . In this, it is implicitly supported by the European Union, with no country wishing to take over (Read: New incident in the Mediterranean. Italian and European change of course confirmed).

« We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this type of event in the future. It's a European question “, declared Joseph Muscat, the Maltese Prime Minister. Is right. Because it is certainly the lack of a European response that poses a problem.

The details of the operation (as given by the NGO) are nevertheless intriguing. In this case, most people located on theAquarius were not rescued by the NGO, but came from transshipments from Italian public ships. They thus fall under Italian law and have every right to request asylum in Italy. By refusing to welcome these people, the Italian government is not only hindering an NGO, it is violating its own rules. It encourages people to ignore an old law of the sea, where faced with a shipwreck, all the ships present on site show solidarity.

(Emmanuelle Stroesser, with AP and NGV)

Read also:

(1) In combined rescue operations, where several vessels intervene, only one, generally the largest and best equipped, takes care of all the people recovered. This is to avoid mobilizing several ships to travel to land and allow others to continue relief operations.

(2) Area that still does not legally exist. Read : Open Arms Sea Relief Operation. Have all the rules been followed? Who is telling the truth?

(Updated) with the Spanish and then Corsican decision to welcome the ship, and the supply of water and food by Malta, Monday June 11 and Tuesday June 12

Emmanuelle Stroesser

A journalist for magazines and the press, Emmanuelle specializes in humanitarian issues, development, asylum and migration and human rights.