November 22, 2022 4:17 pm
On November 21, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson presented a European action plan for the Mediterranean which will be discussed at the European Council of Home Affairs Ministers of the European Union on November 25. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi reacted enthusiastically to the announcement, saying that the Commission has accepted Rome’s requests on immigration, but in reality the plan does not include any code of conduct for non-governmental organizations carrying out relief efforts in sea, as instead had been requested by Rome in the previous council of ministers. “The text puts some important issues on the management of migratory flows at the center of the discussion and does so in the perspective already advocated by the Italian government”, commented Piantedosi.
The Commission’s proposal will make it possible to strengthen agreements with countries of transit and of origin of migrants to stop departures, to finance Frontex (the European agency for external border control) and to try to favor greater coordination between the countries Europeans in sea rescue. The only real novelty is point 17 of the plan in which the Commission undertakes to promote a discussion with the International maritime organization (IMO), the international maritime authority, to modify the rescue guidelines, providing specific ones for ships humanitarian organizations operating in the European context.
What does the plan include?
The document focuses in particular on arrivals along the central Mediterranean route through which 90,000 people arrived in Europe from Libya and Tunisia in 2022, 50 percent more than the previous year. The plan – which is divided into twenty points – provides for the allocation of 580 million euros by 2023 to finance bilateral and international agreements with countries of transit and of origin to stop departures, in particular to finance Libya, Egypt and Tunisia to strengthen border controls, fight human trafficking, consolidate cooperation with Niger always to stop people during their journey, encourage readmission agreements for migrants in non-origin third countries, encourage repatriations.
The plan also provides for the relocation of migrants to the various European states to be encouraged, strengthening the so-called voluntary solidarity mechanism launched in June 2022. But the central part of the document is dedicated to sea rescue after the crisis between Rome and Paris on the ship Ocean Viking: greater coordination in sea rescue is promised between the various European countries and it is announced that it intends to put pressure on the IMO to change the rules of rescue, in particular for humanitarian ships. This last point is controversial and has raised questions among jurists who argue that it is not possible to fail in the rescue obligations established by international law, nor to write specific rules valid only for NGO ships.
The Piantedosi theory
On November 16, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi spoke to the chamber and senate for urgent information on the affair of the NGO ships blocked in the port of Catania after having imposed selective landings on them and illustrated his vision of immigration.
Implicitly, Piantedosi admitted that the number of people rescued by NGO ships in 2022 is minimal compared to the total number of people arriving by sea. In fact, out of 90,000 people who arrived by sea in 2022, only 11,000 were rescued by NGO ships, 12 percent of the total. Among other things, acknowledged the minister, in the same period Italy welcomed 172,000 people fleeing Ukraine. Furthermore, Piantedosi denounced a factor that has already been denied by numerous university studies and independent research institutes such as ISPI: the principle of pull factor.
“The presence of NGO ships in the Mediterranean, near the Libyan coast, continues to represent a factor of attraction for both migrants and human traffickers,” Piantedosi said. Researcher Matteo Villa from ISPI has collected data on departures from Libya since 2014 and put them in relation to data on the presence of NGO ships. In particular from 1 January to 28 May 2021“when the ships were not there, on average more migrants left (135 per day) than when the ships were present in that stretch of sea (125 per day)”, says Villa.
Humanitarian ships have never been shown to be a pull factor for those who want to leave. Furthermore, Piantedosi said that the vessels did not coordinate with the Italian authorities during the rescue and that they only informed them once the rescue had taken place. Furthermore, according to the minister, the flag states of the ships must request the port of unloading and not the ship’s masters. To respond to Piantedosi, in the following days, the NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) published all the communications forwarded by the captain of the Geo Barents to the maritime authorities of Libya, Malta, Italy and Norway (flag state of the ship) before, during and after the rescue.
“Since we went to sea in 2015, to fill the search and rescue gap, we have been operating in full transparency and in compliance with the rules with the sole aim of saving lives,” MSF wrote in a statement. appealed to the Administrative Court of Lazio (TAR) against the decision to impose a selective disembarkation of migrants based on the Piantedosi decree on 5 November. “The decree made an illegitimate and discriminatory selection among the survivors, authorizing only the ‘vulnerable’ ones to disembark in violation of international law”, concludes the statement.
Lastly, Piantedosi said that the ships can be considered “temporary safe places” and that, by transporting “irregular migrants”, they act in open violation of national immigration laws, and their transit in Italian waters must be considered a “not harmless passage ”, in violation of article 19 of the Uclos convention.
“The Court of Cassation and the Italian courts have affirmed in several cases that the masters of ships must turn to the Italian state and not to the governments of their flag states”, clarifies the maritime law expert Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, citing for example the sentence of the court of cassation of 2020 in the case of commander Carola Rackete, who in 2019 forced the blockade imposed by the Italian authorities and docked in the port of Lampedusa to disembark the migrants she had rescued with the SeaWatch ship.
Ships can be “temporary safe places”, “but international laws are incontrovertible on the fact that the obligation is to bring the shipwrecked ashore as quickly as possible”. The ships also inform the states whose flag they fly, but all national and international legislation provides that “the obligation to provide a safe port of disembarkation lies with the state that coordinated the rescue, which often is not the flag state ”. To save people’s lives “it is obvious that relief efforts are often carried out and coordinated by the closest states”.
“And Libya and Tunisia cannot be considered safe ports, because they do not recognize the Geneva Convention on refugees”, continues Vassallo Paleologo. Although now Italy’s attempt is to ask Brussels to put pressure on the IMO to change the guidelines in the case of humanitarian ships, “it is unlikely that this line will pass”, comments Vassallo Paleologo. That would be discriminatory conduct. “The worst thing that is happening is that the Italian government is misrepresenting the facts and the rules”, concludes the jurist.