Saving lives in the Mediterranean was not always so fraught.
After over 360 migrants drowned off the coast of Italian island Lampedusa in October 2013, Italian authorities launched a year-long operation with funding from the European commission, focusing on “safeguarding human life at sea” and “bringing to justice human traffickers and migrant smugglers.”
Operation Mare Nostrum, as it was known, was praised by the International Organisation for Migration for its success in rescuing 150,000 migrants in the Mediterranean, and, according to reporting from the Washington Post, it additionally provided medical treatment, shelter, food and legal aid to migrants.
When other EU States declined to assist in its continued funding, the operation was replaced by a greatly scaled-back programme, Operation Triton, run by border patrol agency Frontex, focussing on border control and ending proactive SAR efforts within the deadliest zone off the Libyan coast.
It was in this context of lacking state-administered SAR programmes that NGOs began their involvement with ship rescue missions in the Mediterranean, starting in 2015.
At least a dozen organisations have been involved in carrying out SAR missions since then, and have rescued 99526 people between 2016 and 2019.
The first seizure of an NGO rescue ship took place in August 2017, when Italian authorities seized the Iuventa on the island of Lampedusa. The ship’s crew were accused of colluding with smugglers, a claim the ship’s NGO denies.
This was the first in a litany of state-sanctioned seizures and blockages, mainly by Italian--but also by Spanish and Maltese--authorities, effectively deterring civil sea rescuing efforts in the Central Mediterranean.
Most of the SAR NGOs in the Mediterranean focus their operations on the area where international waters begin, 22 kilometers off the Libyan coast.
But multiple NGOs thought it necessary to suspend their efforts there in 2017.
In addition to patrolling and allegedly forcing boats back to Libya within the 22 km zone of their national waters, Libyan coast guards have extended their presence and activity into international territories, encouraged by Italy and the EU. Migrants pulled back to Libya are placed in detention centres, where according to a 2016 UN report, detainees are subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings and sexual exploitation and other ill-treatment.
EU training of the Libyan coast guard was agreed to already in June 2016, and in May 2017, Italy would begin transferring its SAR responsibilities to the country—a trend which continued when the official Libyan SAR zone was expanded the following year.
It was not until November 2019 that EU officials admitted in a leaked paper that monitoring of Libyan coast guard activities is impossible, that the migrant detention centres are a profitable business model, and that widespread human rights violations, deaths, unexplained disappearances, bribery and corruption still take place within the centres.
During this past year, Italy announced laws barring SAR ships from entering Italian ports in June, which it strengthened in August to include fines of up to €1 million and prison sentences for failure to cooperate with the authorities.
The next month, Italy’s Five Star Movement government lost support and Luciana Lamorgese became Italy’s new Minister of Interior, replacing Salvini, far-right Minister of Interior and the face of Italy’s anti-immigrant policies. She was received with some hope by SAR NGOs, who believed she would soften the recently implemented policies.
In December 2019, Steier from Mission Lifeline confirmed to MIJ that only two boats remain able to continue with SAR missions off the Libyan coast while the other two active boats are required to remain within the Maltese SAR zone.
A total of five vessels are currently seized by authorities including the Iuventa, one in Malta and the others in Italian ports. Other NGO ships have voluntarily stopped operations, some citing “relentless pressure from EU states” and concerns for the “safety and security of our staff” as reasons.
“We got used to too many words and few facts," she said. "I don't think we can call the establishment of a new government a victory as long as people keep drowning into the Mediterranean."