By: V4 Agency
In an open letter, NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea have called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to stop the return of migrants to Libya. There’s an ongoing dispute between the Libyan Coast Guard and NGOs and the issue of immigration has further intensified tensions in Italy’s coalition government.
NGOs began putting pressure on UN institutions after a human smugglers’ boat, overcrowded with migrants, had capsized in the Mediterranean last Wednesday. NGOs believe that the number of people setting out from Libya to Italy will likely increase, and point out that “Europe’s border regime will keep killing if not stopped. State actors and Frontex only seek to protect borders, rather than people. “
According to the organisation Alarm Phone, Europe’s border regime simply needs “to be abolished and replaced by a Civil Rescue Coordination Centre that has the objective of rescuing people”. This implies that NGOs would set up a coordination centre with EU funding to transport illegal immigrants on their boats to the continent freely.
Earlier, Alarm Phone had criticised not only European but also Libyan border guards, claiming that the “130 people who called us in distress were left to drown by the European and Libyan authorities”. Libyan Navy spokesman Massoud Abdelsamad denied the NGOs’ accusation, describing it as completely false.
After receiving a distress call, a unit was sent from al-Khums to the coordinates given by Malta and Italy, the spokesperson explained. Despite six-metre-high waves, one of the two rubber dinghies was found and 106 migrants were rescued.
French SOS Mediterranee, the NGO operating the Ocean Viking vessel which found what remained of the capsized rubber boat, has launched a campaign with the hashtag #BastaMortiInMare to hold Libyan and European border guards to account for the death toll.
Following the accident, UN agencies have also lined up behind the NGOs’ initiatives.UNHCR and IOM have called for the reactivation of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, ending returns to unsafe ports, and establishing a disembarkation mechanism.
After the harsh criticism directed at the Libyan coast guard, il Giornale published an audio recording proving that its sometimes the NGOs themselves who call the Libyans to provide help for the migrants.
On May 27, the plane called Seabird – which belongs to the Sea-Watch NGO – spotted some inflatable dinghies off of Libya’s shores. The recording reveals that the pilot of the plane sent a message to all stations that some 50 people required immediate assistance. A Libyan coast guard ship responded at the end of the recording, requesting Seabird to repeat the coordinates. Similar to other civil organisations, the Sea-Watch NGO disputes the rescue activity of the Libyan coast guard. In this particular case, hovwever, the pilot requested the coat guards’ help and handed over the illegal immigrants to them, even though – according to the NGOs – irregular migrants should not be transported back to Libya as they will end up being locked into “detention camps” there.
The issue of immigration has also led to escalating tensions within Italy’s coalition government, after Democratic Party chief Enrico Letta gave a live interview on the Raitre Mezz’ora programme.
Mr Letta spoke about non-negotiable values regarding immigration and repeatedly criticised the position of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and centre-right parties, who say the rising death toll if the NGOs’ responsibility. Mr Salvini wrote on social media that the 130 deaths in recent days should weigh “on the conscience of well-wishers who encourage immigrants to take this perilous journey.”
In response, Enrico Letta said that “there are non-negotiable issues. Votes can be lost, but dignity cannot, and those who force people to die at sea violate the law. People must be saved, regardless of whether they are migrants or not,” the party’s secretary general said, expressing his support of the NGOs.
Mr Letta’s position has triggered heated reactions from representatives of the other centre-right parties.
“Enrico Letta proposes an irresponsible immigration policy in his interviews. The plans for open ports proposed by the Democratic Party must be rejected, because Italy needs security, not an invasion,” Forza Italia Senator Maurizio Gasparri, delegated has said.
Giancarlo Giorgetti, deputy secretary of the Lega party, said “Letta is sabotaging the government on purpose, as he is clearly envious that Draghi has reached results in Europe, which the Five Stars Movement and the Democratic Party has not been able to.”