February 23, 2018

Italy enforces NGO boat crackdown as migrant flux slows

05 August 2017, 12:38 | Kristopher Drake

Italy enforces NGO boat crackdown as migrant flux slows

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Italian defense minister Roberta Pinotti said Wednesday that the Italian Navy patrol vessel Commandante Borsini will join Libyan forces in an advisory capacity in Libyan waters.

Italy has no intention to do a "naval blockade", which would be a "hostile action", said the Italian government, insisting on a "request for support and assistance to the coast guard of libyans", in the fight against the traffickers of human beings.

Italian officials complain that these boats, funded by private contributions mostly from Europe, act as a "ferry service" to Italy for migrants, who are dispatched by smugglers in rubber and wooden boats and then picked up outside Libya's 12-mile limit by the NGOs for transport to Sicily.

The number of migrant arrivals in Italy in July was down dramatically on the same month a year ago, suggesting that efforts to train and better equip the Libyan coast guard could be having an impact.

The HoR statement warned that Italy - by its deal with Al-Sirraj - is trying to export the crisis of illegal immigration to Libya by returning scores of migrants to Libya, making a new security, social and economic dilemma for the country.

Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said Italy was providing technical support, not seeking to impose a "hostile" naval blockade created to prevent the departure of migrant boats.

The Interior Ministry said 11,193 new arrivals had been registered in July, compared with 23,552 in July 2016.

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But the approach has been criticised by global rights groups who say people returned to troubled Libya face detention in squalid camps and abuse at the hands of traffickers.

The German NGO migrant rescue boat has been put under preventive seizure as Italian authorities investigate what they suspected could be aiding people smuggling. They estimate that 2,221 people have drowned this year alone on the central Mediterranean route.

The prosecutor, however, said the vessel was seized preventatively as it appears there was no "coordinated plan", nor any money exchanged, and the NGO was likely driven by "humanitarian motives" when they reached an "understanding" with the smugglers. "There is nothing to suggest the aim is financial gain". Among the points the two groups disagreed with are allowing armed Italian officials to board the rescue ships and prohibiting the transfer of migrants between NGO vessels, which is commonly done to ensure a constant presence of charity ships in the search-and-rescue zone while the larger, faster vessels do the ferrying of those rescued to Italian ports.

The NGOs that are refusing to comply want some clarity on whether the new conditions are targeted at people smugglers or aimed at stopping the flow of migrants' altogether.

Last week, the Italian government issued a code of conduct for NGOs, which Doctors Without Borders and the German rescue group Jugend Rettet refused to sign.

Smugglers, exploiting the chaos in Libya caused by the 2011 uprising, pack desperate refugees and asylum seekers onto ill-equipped boats, which are usually intercepted by European vessels once they enter global waters.

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