As another refugee boat sinks off Italy’s coast, Giorgia Meloni is criminalising civilian search and rescue
At least 62 refugees died after their boat sank early on 26 February in stormy seas off Italy’s southern Calabria region. A rescue centre in the city of Crotone said 12 of the 62 victims were children. A further 33 were women, according to AGI (Agenzia Giornalistica Italia) news agency.
Italian coastguards said violent waves off Crotone broke up the overloaded vessel. One officer reported that a suspected people smuggler had been arrested by the security forces. Rescue workers told AFP (Agence France-Presse) that the vessel had been carrying “more than 200 people”.
This comes just days after a similar disaster killed 73 refugees off the coast of Libya. United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres wrote on Twitter:
Yet another horrific shipwreck has claimed the lives of dozens of people, including children – this time off the coast of Italy.
I say once again: Every person searching for a better life deserves safety & dignity. We need safe, legal routes for migrants & refugees.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) February 26, 2023
‘We must redouble our efforts’
On Sunday, the UN and the European Commission chiefs urged countries to agree fairly on ways to share out responsibility for people escaping conflict and poverty. As refugees flee their homes for what they hope will be a better life in Europe, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said that it is:
Time for states to stop arguing and to agree on just, effective, shared measures to avoid more tragedies.
Moreover, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the deaths were a “tragedy” that left her “deeply saddened”:
I am deeply saddened by the terrible shipwreck off the coast of Calabria.
The resulting loss of life of innocent migrants is a tragedy.
All together, we must redouble our efforts on the Pact on Migration & Asylum and on the Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) February 26, 2023
She also called for progress on a stalled reform of EU asylum rules in relation to the tragedy. However, only last week, Giordia Meloni’s Italian right-wing coalition government pushed through parliament a new law to the contrary. It forces migrant aid charities to perform only one life-saving rescue mission at a time.
UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk said:
The law would effectively punish both migrants and those who seek to help them. This penalization of humanitarian actions would likely deter human rights and humanitarian organisations from doing their crucial work.
By cutting the number of rescue ships able to operate, the law will likely result in more people drowning in the central Mediterranean. This is already considered the most dangerous crossing for people seeking asylum in Europe.
Of the refugees seeking to reach European shores, a large proportion cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Italy. According to the interior ministry, nearly 14,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year. This is more than double the 5,200 over the same period last year.
Charities rescuing people in danger at sea bring only a fraction of migrants ashore. Most of those who are rescued are plucked from the dangerous waters by Italian coastguards or the navy. Despite this, Meloni’s government claims that rescue charities encourage migrants to attempt the crossing and boost the fortunes of human traffickers.
‘Punished for saving lives’
On Thursday, Italian authorities impounded a migrant rescue vessel belonging to medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for allegedly breaking the new law on life-saving missions in the Mediterranean. MSF said that it was considering a possible legal challenge, adding:
It’s unacceptable to be punished for saving lives.
⚫️ Today our team was supposed to be back at sea to prevent more deaths in the #CentralMediterranean.
❓ Who will pay the real price of the detention imposed on #GeoBarents?
The people crossing the #CentralMed who will be left without assistance. pic.twitter.com/f0wtFF6czU
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) February 24, 2023
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) offered its solidarity:
🇮🇹 is stepping up its crackdown on civil fleets to obstruct their work of saving lives.
We stand in solidarity with #GeoBarents and all search & rescue ships! https://t.co/ZSLXqwGmgU
— ECRE (@ecre) February 24, 2023
Regarding MSF, SOS Mediterranee also said:
Once again, the central Mediterranean is emptied of a vital rescue asset
Civil rescue ships are only filling the deadly gap left by E.U. States in the central Mediterranean. Criminalization of search and rescue at sea must end.
As the climate crisis and wars continue to create refugees desperately fleeing their homes, attempted crossings will keep taking place. However, increasingly far-right governments are more invested in ‘tough on immigration’ posturing than saving human lives. More than this, as Meloni has shown, they are criminalising civilian rescue efforts that plug the gaps left by governments.
The lives of (overwhelmingly Black and brown) refugees hold no value at European borders. It is therefore imperative that we stand together to speak out against the callous disregard for human life shown by European governments.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via Quirinale/Wikimedia Commons, resized to 770*403
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