Italy launched a new naval mission on Wednesday, August 2nd to combat people smuggling migrants and refugees on boats that are crossing from Libya to Italy. The mission was approved by Italy’s Parliament after a request from Libya’s UN-backed government. For the mission, a patrol boat was sent into Libyan territorial waters in Tripoli, with another expected to join it after a few days. The initial plans for the mission included six patrol boats, but had to be scaled back due to protests in Tripoli. The launch coincided with Italian authorities seizing the German charity, Jugend Rettet’s, rescue ship, the Iuventa, on the island of Lampedusa. Trapani prosecutors claimed that the ship was being used to “aid and abet illegal immigration” as it allegedly had contact with smugglers. This was the first time an NGO boat has been seized by Italian authorities, which and highlights the current tensions between authorities and NGOs over sea rescues in the Mediterranean.
Before the vote on Wednesday, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti stated that the mission would “provide logistical, technical and operational support for Libyan naval vessels, helping them and supporting them in shared and coordinated actions.” She further emphasized that there was no intention to impose a blockade on the Libyan coast. In contrast, the launch received a strong statement of opposition from Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan general controlling the eastern area of Libya. In a statement made by the Libyan National Army, Haftar issued orders “to confront any marine unit that enters the Libyan waters without the permission of the army.” NGOs have also criticized the mission, with Judith Sunderland, the Associate Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, stating that “the Italian Navy deployment in Libyan waters could effectively lead to [the] arbitrary detention of people in abusive conditions.”
Meanwhile, the plans to turn back boats to Libya raises concerns regarding the prevalence of human rights abuses in the country towards migrants. This was emphasized by Sunderland, who further stated that “after years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence, and forced labo[u]r.” The mission may also cause further discord with NGO rescue operations. For instance, in July, Italian authorities attempted to implement a “code of conduct” for NGO rescue boats, but six of the nine aid groups conducting search-and-rescue operations refusing to sign up.
Furthermore, the migrant crisis has been an ongoing issue for the EU states receiving the bulk of migrants who cross the Mediterranean. The International Organisation for Migration has claimed that while 94,802 people have reached Italy, 2,221 have drowned attempting the crossing, this year alone. The surge in arrivals has placed pressure on Italy’s reception centres and caused public discontent. As well, the heavy influx has the potential to affect the influence of populist opposition parties in its general elections next year. On another note, Libya is a main point of departure for Europe from North Africa, and migrants that are picked up within Libya’s territorial waters, before they reach international waters, can legally be returned back to Libya.
With the continuing flow of people risking their lives to make the crossing to Europe, the Italian government should ensure that it maintains its close relations and cooperation with NGOs providing rescue operations. Such NGO operations have handled 35% of rescues in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year. Therefore, the human rights of those that are rescued must be upheld in order to ensure that they are not exposed to further abuses, whilst working toward an enduring solution to prevent further losses of lives.
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