Mediterranean: European Governments Continue to Obstruct Lifesaving Rescues and Return People to Unsafe Conditions in Libya

SOUTH SUDAN © Valérie Batselaere/MSF

NEW YORK/AMSTERDAM, MARCH 21, 2018—The decision by Italian authorities to seize Open Arms, a rescue vessel belonging to the Spanish NGO Proactiva, shortly after its crew rescued and disembarked 216 people in the Central Mediterranean on Sunday is the latest in a long series of actions obstructing non-governmental organizations from carrying out lifesaving rescue operations at sea, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

The organization is singling out Italian and other European governments and condemning the actions they have taken to prevent lifesaving rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean, forcing people to return to Libya where they are often exposed to horrific levels of violence, abuse, and exploitation.

“We understand that Open Arms rescued people in international waters; in one of the rescues at 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, the Libyan Coastguard threatened the rescue team with violence,” said Annemarie Loof, MSF operational manager. “There’s a disturbing level of cooperation between European governments and the Libyan Coastguard, ranging from training and material support to paving the way for Libyan Coastguards in international waters, aimed at returning people to Libya.”

While the facts around the rescue and the seizure of the ship are yet to be fully established, these actions bear the hallmark of a campaign of criminalization against NGOs carrying out search and rescue operations.

“We are seeing an alarming trend by Italian and other European governments who actively seek to criminalize and block NGOs, including MSF, from conducting Search and Rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean,” said Loof. “Since the summer of 2017, Italian authorities, backed by the European Union, have increasingly obstructed NGO operations from saving people’s lives at sea. From an ill-conceived code of conduct for NGOs, to politically-exploited criminal investigations that feed suspicion of NGOs and directly affect their ability to continue their work.”

With the recent impounding of Open Arms in Sicily, the Aquarius—jointly operated by SOS Méditerranée and MSF—is now the only search and rescue NGO vessel at sea today.

European governments continue to enforce policies of deterrence and containment in Libya, obstructing NGOs from saving lives at sea at a time when people have no safe route or legal alternative to flee from horrific levels of violence, abuse, and exploitation. 

“Under no circumstance should refugees and migrants be returned to Libya or trapped there. Clearly European governments are not prioritizing the safety of these people. Rather, they are playing a dirty game of politics while people’s lives hang in the balance," Loof said.

MSF provides medical assistance to refugees and migrants along the Central Mediterranean, including through a search and rescue vessel called Aquarius, which MSF runs in cooperation with humanitarian organization SOS Méditerranée. In Libya, MSF teams provide medical assistance to refugees and migrants arbitrarily held in detention centers.