The German aid group Sea Eye has announced it is suspending refugee search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea following explicit threats from the Libyan government. Sea Eye is the third NGO to make such a decision since Libya extended its search and rescue area twelve nautical miles beyond its recognized territorial waters. Last week, the Libyan Navy warned NGOs to stay out of this newly delineated area and fired at the approaching vessel of a Spanish aid group while it was in international waters. Founder of Sea Eye, Michael Buschheur, stated that the decision was made with “a heavy heart” and would “leave behind a deadly gap in the Mediterranean” but to do otherwise would be “irresponsible towards our crews.”
This month the Italian navy began supporting the Libyan coastguard in blocking boat departures. The Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano has given his explicit support for the Libyan government’s decision. Alfano stated, “we made two choices: that of taking away criminal earnings from traffickers because fewer persons departing mean the traffickers earn less, and that of financing the UN agencies to assure respect for human rights in the Libyan camps.” However, rescued migrants have recalled malnourishment, forced labour, rape, beating and torture amongst their experiences of waiting months in Libyan camps.
Over 600, 000 migrants have arrived in Italy over the past four years, many having departed from refugee camps in Libya before crossing the Mediterranean Sea in dangerous, often unseaworthy boats. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees since 1954, Italy is legally obligated to accommodate asylum seekers from Libya regardless of their mode of arrival. However, as the Italian government looks to reverse the permeability of its borders, its policy is seemingly informed less by its legal obligations and more by its perception of migrants as a socio-economic threat. Mismanaged security, rising unemployment and a flat lining economy have been seen to hinder rather than help this attitude.
The Libyan government has characterized aid groups such as Sea Eye as aiding human smugglers and resisting the restoration of balance to the Mediterranean. Simultaneously, the Italian government has demanded that those NGOs that insist on continuing their search and rescue missions must sign a Code of Conduct. Médecins Sans Frontières, which also announced it would suspend its search and rescue operations, has stated that the Italian government is “mixing the humanitarian goal of saving lives with a political and military intention of reducing arrivals.”
The controversy around the effectuality of search and rescue operations continues to be a polycentric and polarizing issue. While some European governments have been known to fund the service-oriented activities of NGOs, the actions of the Italian government show that this encouragement is rescinded when it conflicts with their security paradigm. This has prompted calls for NGOs to be given greater agency as co-producers of refugee rescue policy and recognized as a complementary non-governmental tool amidst the lack of EU intervention. Buschheur appealed to state and non-state groups, “to help those who are in distress is the duty of everyone who is at sea – no matter their origins, skin colour, religion or views.” In the meantime, Libyan and Italian negotiators continue to prioritize curbing the flow of asylum seekers across the Mediterranean.