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NGOs furious as Italian warship sets sail for Tripoli to stem migrant flow

Italy plans to impose a code of conduct on charities rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea as humanitarian ships have become increasingly instrumental in migrant rescue operations, picking up more than a third of all migrants rescued in 2017 compared to 1 per cent in 2014.

Published: August 2, 2017, 11:19 pm

    “The idea of blocking humanitarian ships flying foreign flags from returning to Italian ports has been discussed,” an Italian government source told Reuters.

    Struggling to cope with the summer peak of the influx, Italy has threatened to close its ports to humanitarian rescue ships as a migrant “saturation point” approaches, but humanitarian groups have warned that it “threatens thousands of lives”.

    The Italian defence ministry on Wednesday said that the Italian ship the Comandante Borsini has “just entered Libyan territorial waters after receiving the necessary authorisations, heading towards the port of the city of Tripoli”, ANSA reported. The Libyan coast is now the main departure point for boats heading towards Europe.

    The ship, which was previously engaged in the Mare Sicuro operation, will conduct “the necessary reconnaissance activities” to be able to decide on coordination for subsequent activities a statement said.

    The Comandanti class of patrol vessels, operated by the Marina Militare Italiana, boast stealth features and share logistics, interoperability, similar combat system features and integrated telecommunications systems.

    Comandante Borsini

    A command ship heading a flotilla of at least five smaller vessels manned with a thousand sailors will be deployed in the mission, newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on Thursday. Planes, helicopters and drones will also be used, it said.

    The rules of engagement, the area of coastline to be patrolled and the nature of cooperation with Libya’s security forces have yet to be defined, the source told Reuters. Italy is however set on picking up migrants at near the coast of Libya and returning them to land.

    In a letter that Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni outlined last week, Tripoli invited Italian warships into its territorial waters. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj was in Italy for the announcement of the plan, Reuters reported.

    Gentiloni said several European colleagues supported the mission. “It pleases me to know there is a lot of support in Europe to this new possibility,” he said. The plan was approved by the European Commission and border agency Frontex, but NGOs rejected the revised proposal this week.

    An 11-point proposed plan – a code of conduct – drafted by the Italian government and presented at an informal meeting of the European Justice and Home Affairs Council on 6 July was rejected by several aid agencies. Jugend Rettet, a German NGO, told the Independent that forcing vessels to return to land, would take them out of the search and rescue zone “where they are urgently needed”.

    More than 10 000 migrants have flooded into the country in recent days, and crossings from Libya show no sign of slowing in the ongoing crisis. Italy’s pleas for support from fellow EU nations in redistributing some 200 000 migrants in overflowing government reception centres, have fallen on deaf ears, amid tanking political support for pro-immigration parties.

    The code of conduct could force ships to sail onwards to countries including Malta, France, Spain and Germany, where some charities operating them are based. Disembarkation is governed by international law, and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea dictates that any ship must assist a boat in distress regardless of the circumstances, and says the country responsible for operations in that area must “arrange for such disembarkation to be effected as soon as reasonably practicable”, furious NGOs maintain.

    Migrants who reach international waters are brought to Italy because Libya is not considered safe. Returning them to Libya, would be a violation of international non-refoulement law, NGOs complain. But most migrants are not from Libya.

    Libya’s presidential council in Tripoli has confirmed meanwhile that they would be working with the Italian Navy. “What was agreed with Italy was the completion of the program supporting the coast guards to train and prepare them with armed capabilities and equipment for saving lives of migrants, and to confront criminal organizations,” it said.

    A spokesman for the Libyan coast guard told the Guardian that the NGOs were acting inside Libyan coastal waters in breach of international law. The past three years have shown June to September to be when migrants numbers peak.

    Ayyoub Qasem accused the NGOs of “encouraging illegal immigrants – who flock to Libya from over 30 African countries – and not worrying at all about Libya’s sovereignty over its territory and its territorial waters.” Qasem said the NGOs were acting in open violation of Libyan maritime sovereignty. The number of migrants embarking from Libya had risen by 20 percent since last year despite measures designed to reduce the flow, he added.

    The code of conduct drafted by Italy, would limit the interference of nongovernmental groups carrying out so-called search and rescue operations on the central Mediterranean by essentially:

    – Barring them from entering Libyan territorial waters to undertake rescues;

    – Banning them from using lights to signal their location to vessels with the obvious intention of not facilitating contact with traffickers;

    – Forcing them to return to port to disembark refugees and migrants, rather than allowing them to transfer rescued people onto other vessels at sea. This would remove nongovernmental groups’ search-and-rescue teams for long periods from the area.

    – The obligation not to obstruct the search and rescue operations of the Libyan Coast Guard with the obvious intention of leaving the responsibility to the territorial authorities;

    – The right of official police officers conducting investigations related to human trafficking, including access to naval facilities;

    – The obligation to declare, in accordance with the principles of transparency, the sources of funding for rescue at sea;

    – The obligation to notify the sighting and the subsequent intervention in progress of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers so that it may be aware of the activity in which the vessel is engaged and may assume responsibility, also for the purpose of maritime security.

    The draft code includes the threat of refusal to allow vessels from nongovernmental groups to disembark in Italy if they do not sign the code or fail to comply with any of its provisions.

    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both signalled their refusal to sign the proposal for a code of conduct for nongovernmental groups. Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office, said the proposals were part of a “concerted smear campaign” against NGO rescue ships, which has culminated in the Identitarian group called Defend Europe sending its own vessel to disrupt human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea.

    Italian opposition politicians have provided evidence that aid agencies are aiding or even directly colluding with Libyan smugglers and dismissed the two parliamentary committee inquiries in Italy finding no evidence of misconduct as a sham. In late April, an Italian attorney from the port city of Catania directly accused NGOs of working with human smugglers.

    Carmelo Zuccaro, the chief prosecutor for the Italian port city of Catania, told La Stampa newspaper that he had hard evidence that NGOs are directly working with human smugglers to bring migrants into Italy.

    Médecins Sans Frontiers have not signed the document either, General Director Gabriele Eminente said after a meeting in the Ministry of Interior in Rome, according to Italian news agencies. Tommaso Fabbri, chairman of the organisation, said: “We will continue our rescue operations without any changes.

    German charity Sea-Watch even announced the deployment of a second rescue vessel in response to the Italian plans. “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,” CEO Axel Grafmanns told the Independent.

    According to Italian sources Sea-Watch have refused to allow armed police officers on board.

    Some 600 000 migrants have reached Italy by sea from North Africa since 2014, making immigration the number one political issue.

    The moment of Parisella’s attack by migrants, live

    In May this year, a shock video showed an Italian female reporter fleeing in panic after being attacked by migrants on live television.

    Francesca Parisella was assaulted as she was reporting for Italy’s Matrix Channel 5 on how migrants had turned Rome’s Termini Station into a temporary squatter camp.

    New figures from Eurostat show that just 1.4 percent of migrants arriving in Italy are Syrian refugees, suggesting that the overwhelming majority of migrants are from countries not at war.

    The numbers also reveal how the migrant crisis is being misrepresented by the media, as well as NGOs who insist that migrants are from “war-torn” countries and would face mortal danger if they had to return home.

    While only 1,4 percent of asylum seekers who arrived in Italy in the first five months of 2017 were from Syria, just 845 Syrians applied for asylum out of 58 255 arrivals between January and May this year. This includes individuals who have fake identity papers and merely claimed to be Syrian to receive sympathetic treatment.

    According to the Institute for the Analysis of Multiethnicity (Ismu), 85 percent of asylum requests in Italy were from men, with only 4 percent from minors.

    “To put that into context, the combined total of asylum seekers fleeing war in Syria and Libya is less than the combined total of those coming from Nigeria, Pakistan and, wait for it, Guinea,” blogger Westmonster noted.

    The vast majority of migrants are not refugees but simply individuals abusing the generosity of western nations, yet the mainstream media has refused to acknowledge the reality. Only 0.36 percent of all “refugees” were in fact Libyan.

    The UNHCR’s own data confirms that: “Nigerians make up nearly a fifth of the arrivals in Italy, followed by the nationals of Eritrea at 13 per cent and then Sudan, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Somalia, Mali, Senegal and Bangladesh.”

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