- The Tunis meeting: the week started with the outcome of a new meeting of the Africa-Europe contact group in Tunis, following pressure from the United Nations, to curb 20,000 people from the total number of arrivals to Italy and to process asylum requests on the ground in countries on the Libyan migrant route, such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Chad and Sudan. The involvement of African countries includes Algeria, that didn’t take part in the effort before. On this occasion, the Eu Commissioner for Migration Avramopoulos recalled the extent of European aid to Tunisia.
- France acting by itself: in a week full of unilateral announcements by the newly elected president Macron, the French presidency invited the recognised Libyan premier Fayez al Serraj and his main opposer in the Cyrenaica province Khalifa Haftar for a meeting, without informing Italy. It also announced France wants to set up hotspots on Libyan soil. This announcement was retracted after a call from Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni.
- Italian military ships in Libyan waters: the Italian government announced that it will deploy six ships in support of the Libyan coast guard, with hundreds of men and the aid of helicopters and drones. This mission intends to replicate the Alba mission that stopped migration from Albania at the end of the Nineties. In addition, Italy will also create a task force on the ground in Libya. The character of the mission looks more like that of an international police operation than a humanitarian one, so much so that it will involve the Nato’s “Sofa” model: immunity for the military on foreign soil. Beyond a vague mention of exceptions “in case of danger” – when migrants on boats will be rescued but still rerouted to Libya – officials deny that the mission will “reject” people back, but it will definitely stop boats before the limit of Italian waters to send them back to Libya, where the situation is dramatically unstable and attempts to cooperate with the Libyans have so far failed. Rejected migrants are supposed to end up in refugee camps on Libyan soil if “guarantees on human rights” are obtained – something that seems very hard to provide for both the al Serraj goverment and the UN Refugees Agency, considering the well-documented practices of abuse, rape, torture and exploitment in current Libyan camps. To say the least, these guarantees look hard to obtain within the first week of August, when Italy would like to start its mission, pending parliamentary approval.
- The NGOS “code of conduct”: parallel to the announcement of a naval mission, Italy is also negotiating with the NGOs a compulsory code of conduct for them to continue acting as rescuers in the Mediterranean – something most of them have been doing for two years now, saving dozens of thousands of lives. Apparently it was the Eu who asked the Italian Interior Ministry to accommodate some negotiations instead of imposing the code. The draft of the code, even if it could significantly diverge from the final version, shows a list of rules almost identical to those the NGOs were already adhering to under the coordination of the Italian Coast Guard, with the notable exceptions of “no lights on board”, judiciary police allowed on board, no transfer of people to other vessels, and no trespassing into Libyan waters. The idea of a new code legitimizes the idea circulating since a smear campaign started over Easter, that the NGOs were acting in anarchy before this measures, while all the while they always worked under the Rome command of the Italian Coast Guard, their transponders on, their positions regularly communicated, transferring people to other vessels when their capacity didn’t allow for safe transport to the closest harbor. Regarding the trespassing into Libyan waters, this is a rule that was never respected by the Coast Guard itself, historically moving back and forth between Italian and Libyan waters “according to the Hamburg convention”, like the Lampedusa Coast Guard Commander himself explained back in 2015. In any case, each point of the draft seems to involve an exception “in case of emergency” – a bit confusing since this is the daily case in the Mediterranean these days. In a legal environment that is not fully prepared to a humanitarian effort at sea by private ships that has no precedent, a very useful tool for understanding is Cild’s Guide to rights at sea.
NGOs are a very diverse bunch and they have different opinions about the draft, but altogether, after their first meeting with the government on Tuesday July 25, they have said to be worried by points on transfer to other boats and allowing police on board. SeaWatch’s Sandra Hammamy has hinted that parts of the draft would violate maritime laws, while Sea Eye’s Gunter Koertel doesn’t think an agreement can be reached in just a few days. On Friday July 28, Doctors Without Borders (Msf) announced on which points it is seeking clarification and reassurance and expressed strong concern over how people detained in camps will be treated. At the end of a second meeting at the Ministry on Friday, July 28, the final decision was set for Monday, July 31 at 4 pm. By then, the Ministry will present a revised text based upon its consultations with the NGOs, and they in turn will decide wether they can sign it. Save the Children said they’re confident, Msf is more cautious and worried about possible interference in medical assistance on board, but generally NGOs noticed an openness on the Ministry’s side, especially about dropping the ban on transfers to other ships; other points remain touchy, like the NGOs request that police come on board only unarmed and only occasionally. The Ministry said they’re satisfied about steps forward so far.
- People keep dying at sea: it should be noted that while all of this was happening, on July 25, 11 more people died at sea while hundreds were being rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and NGOs. Missing Migrants announced that 3,282 people already died on migrants routes so far in 2017, 2,377 of them in the Mediterranean only.
Cover photo: the migrant boats graveyard in Lampedusa, Italy (by Marina Petrillo)