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MSF suspends its migrant rescue operations off Libyan coast

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) will suspend its migrant rescues in the Mediterranean, the organisation declared on Saturday after Italian government moved to halt the human trafficking from North Africa.

Published: August 13, 2017, 8:56 am

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    MSF said because it felt “threatened” by the Libyan coastguard, its largest rescue ship for migrants have been put on standby. It is currently docked in the Sicilian port of Catania after Libya barred foreign vessels from entering its territorial waters.

    While most African migrants are from countries where there are no conflicts, MSF insisted that migrants were fleeing for “security”.

    “European states and the Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a roadblock for people looking for security,” MSF Italy president Loris De Filippi complained in a statement. “It’s an unacceptable attack on the lives and dignity of people.”

    “With NGOs more and more restricted in the Med & the #EU determined to trap people in #Libya, we’ve put the #Prudence on standby,” MSF tweeted. MSF owns the Prudence, one of the largest NGO vessels in the Mediterranean that brought 1 500 migrants to Europa in May alone.

    “We are suspending our activities because now we feel that the threatening behaviour by the Libyan coastguard is very serious … we cannot put our colleagues in danger,” the president of MSF’s Italian arm Loris De Filippi told Reuters.

    Italy presented evidence earlier this month that NGO’s were actively engaged in human trafficking and warned them that they could not continue working in the Mediterranean if they did not sign up to certain rules governing their operations.

    A German vessel has already been impounded for allegedly aiding people smugglers. Under the new code of conduct an Italian police officer must be allowed on board to monitor NGO activities.

    The Italian governement fears a conservative backlash ahead of elections. Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, told Reuters MSF’s move meant there would be “thousands fewer illegal immigrants for Italians to maintain”.

    Many aid agencies conducting rescues off the coast of Libya  signed the agreement, but MSF have refused to do so. MSF objected to the requirement that Italian police officers be on their boats.

    They also refused to take migrants to a safe port themselves, while insisting on transferring the migrants to other vessels to allow smuggler’s boats to stay in the area to continue as taxis.

    The Libyan coastguard has ordered NGOs to stay out of its territorial seas. Previously the NGOs had been allowed to conduct search and rescue operations as close as 11 nautical miles to the mainland.

    De Filippi said the Rome government’s Code of Conduct for NGOs was “a political and military intention” of reducing arrivals. He said the European Union’s immigration policies showed it was “determined to trap people in Libya”.

    Aid agencies have picked up more than a third of all migrants brought to the EU so far this year against less than one percent in 2014.

    Libya’s Navy spokesman General Ayoub Qassem said on Thursday that the measure was aimed at non-governmental organisations “which pretend to want to rescue illegal migrants and carry out humanitarian actions”.

    Libya has ordered foreign vessels out of a coastal “search and rescue zone” in which the smugglers operate.

    Some 600 000 mostly African migrants have arrived in Italy via Libya since the start of 2014. Since the NATO bombing campaign against Libya,  it has become a key departure point for migrants to Europe.

    General Khalifa Haftar, meanwhile, backtracked on his previous threats to bomb Italian vessels. He told Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Saturday he would not attack them.

    SOS Mediterranee on Friday became the fifth NGO to sign the Italian-drafted code of conduct for organisations involved in migrant rescues on the Mediterranean. The charity inked the document at the interior ministry, having initially refused to sign up to it.

    Among other things, NGOs that sign the code agree not to enter Libyan territorial waters. Three NGOs have still not signed up. Those who do not sign are not guaranteed access to Italian ports.

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