Italy At Centre Of Ongoing Mediterranean Migration Drama

Around 170 rescued migrants are being refused entry to an Italian port, under the government’s “zero-landing” policy. The Italian Coast Guard vessel Diciotti, carrying the rescued migrants and refugees, has been waiting a week for official authorisation to disembark its passengers at the Sicilian port of Catania.

The policy places the new Italian government at the centre of an ongoing stand-off with the European Union (EU) over shared responsibility for refugees. Despite a draft agreement to better handle Mediterranean migration being signed last month, EU member states continue to respond ad hoc to events.

At the start of last week, five days after rescuing the passengers off Libya’s coast, the Diciotti was given permission to dock in Catania by Minister of Transport Danilo Toninelli. While some passengers have been allowed to disembark to receive medical attention, most of them are still onboard. On August 29th, after international and domestic pressure, 27 unaccompanied minors were allowed off the vessel. However, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refuses to let the rest of the migrants get off the ship and is demanding collaboration from the European Union.

According to The Guardian, this is the third time the Italian government has banned one of its own vessels from mooring. Italian TV reported the Interior Minister as saying: “The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed in a spirit of solidarity by the EU, which is made up of 27 countries.” Salvini also suggested that unwanted migrants should be returned to Libyan camps.

Italian Coast Guard spokesperson Antonello Ciavarelli, on the other hand, described the event as “incomprehensible” and “embarrassing”. Evidently, not everybody agrees with the government’s hard-line approach. “The hope is that Italian and international politics quickly decide on how to deal with migration flows, without leaving [a lit match] in the hands of the Italian Coast Guard” Ciaverelli said to Corriere newspaper.

There are humanitarian, legal and medical reasons why those on board the Diciotti should be allowed to disembark. Asylum law expert Fulvio Vassallo told The Guardian that Italy may be violating Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “This is an illegal detention and asylum seekers detained for more than 48 hours should be immediately released and should be given the opportunity to apply for refugee status.” International organizations such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Save the Children have also appealed to the Italian government to let the migrants disembark. MSF psychologist Nathalie Leiba said many of the minors she treated were “exhausted and confused.” Furthermore, many of those who come from Libya are known to have spent time in detention camps. The dreadful conditions and torture occurring within the camps have been widely condemned by the international community.

According to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrant Project, 1,546 migrants have died so far in 2018. The causes are, by order of magnitude: 1) drowning, 2) presumed drowning, 3) unknown, 4) cardiac arrest, and 5) hypothermia. Many more lives would have been lost at sea if it wasn’t for the efforts of those on board the Aquarius, the Open Arms and other such vessels. But people should not be forced to stay in these vessels forever, there must be a comprehensive framework to protect the rights of those rescued in international waters.

Salvini is acting unlawfully, but the problem is bigger and structural. The BBC reports that the European Commission has existing international maritime conventions and regulations which state that any ship learning of persons in distress “should proceed with all speed to their assistance”. These agreements also state that “that every state that has a ship flying its flag should require that ship to rescue those ‘in distress’ at sea.”

Furthermore, a convention from 1979 provides a legal framework for parties to co-ordinate rescue missions. And finally, there are clauses requiring member states of the International Maritime Organization to “co-ordinate so that persons rescued at sea are disembarked in a place of safety as soon as possible.” But neither these, nor the acclaimed agreement on Europe-bound migration and refugee flows reached by EU member states in late June are strong enough. This is because, in the end, they can be overridden by sovereign state interpretations and an opportunistic use of legal mechanisms.

In the first instance, urgent action needs to be taken to let those on board of the Diciotti disembark. Looking at the bigger picture, the EU must come up with a structural and sustainable solution to the migration problem. European leaders should be focusing on the appropriate integration of migrants into society – so they can contribute positively to the receiving country’s economy. They also need to open, not close, legal avenues for migration.

In their recommendations, the IOM’s World Migration Report 2018 describes initiatives such as “mini-multilateral approaches to norm-building to fill gaps in binding international law”. Furthermore, low-skilled labour migration should be considered not only as temporary channels; and the rights, health and dignity of migrants should always be ensured. Finally, a protective attitude towards migrants would have a constructive impact on host societies, and therefore, open the way for more inclusive policies.