Emergency: Italy has turned search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean into “a political issue”

News 08.02.2023

On December 13, 2022, the ship “Life Support” was launched from the port of Genoa, Italy, to rescue people travelling across the Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest migration route. The ship is operated by 2015 Right Livelihood Laureate organisation Emergency, and the rescue team puts themselves at great physical risk entering the Mediterranean Sea to save capsized migrants. However, the obstacles that await the “Life Support” team on land can be just as challenging: the Italian government’s bad-faith migration policies and the politically-manipulated public.

Since 2015, over 2.2 million migrants have made the dangerous journey across the central Mediterranean to Europe. Crowded into wooden fishing boats or inflatable dinghies unfit for sea travel, a devastating 25,818 people have died or disappeared along the migration route.

This humanitarian crisis has caused significant tension in Europe, with some politicians turning migrants into scapegoats for their state’s shortcomings and others calling for comprehensive aid and integration measures. In Italy, the most common final destination of the Mediterranean migration route, the divide is clearest between the government and search and rescue NGOs.

According to Emergency’s Director of Communications, Simonetta Gola, the lack of awareness about migration across the Mediterranean has made the Italian public vulnerable to misinformation and manipulation by the government. As a result, Emergency and other search and rescue NGOs have been accused of driving their own immigration policy and their political opponents are using policy and public opinion to hinder their work at every turn.

Much of this misinformation stems from the Italian government’s 2014 decision to stop state-run search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Since then, NGOs have been forced to operate all search and rescue missions independently, making them the target of Italy’s anti-migrant policies and the public’s migration concerns. 

“One of the problems is intervening in a situation that is manipulated to condition public opinion,” said Gola. “These are life-saving operations. But in Italy, it is not treated as a humanitarian issue, but as a political issue.”

Earlier this year, the Italian government issued a decree that explicitly politicised NGOs’ rescue missions. The decree limits NGOs to rescuing a single boat of migrants at a time, meaning they must take all migrants to shore for processing before they can rescue another boat.

Gola explained the impact of the decree plainly: “That would mean that once you’re driving away, and if nobody else is there and a boat is in need, they are going to drown.”

According to Gola, such decrees manipulate the public into believing that NGOs’ rescue efforts are driving migration across the Mediterranean. This is far from the truth.

“Last year, we had about 100,000 people coming by the Mediterranean Route and just 11.5 per cent were saved by NGOs,” said Gola. “It’s a very small amount of people. We are having all these discussions in Europe and Italy about 12,000 people… it’s an ideological argument and not a real problem.”

Gola thinks the Italian public would also feel differently about migration if they understood the atrocities people face before reaching Europe.

“I have been working for Emergency for 22 years, but the rescue boat is something that greatly changes your perception of other people in danger,” Gola said. “You see people that are risking their life, usually after years of humiliation and abuse… People don’t consider enough what it means to be face-to-face with somebody that has spent months or years suffering.”

The Libyan Coast Guard is responsible for a lot of the suffering migrants experience travelling across the Mediterranean, for which the Italian government and the European Union are to blame.

Rather than invest in search and rescue missions coordinated at the European level, as Emergency and other NGOs have proposed, Italy and the EU have invested in training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and detain migrants. 

“These coastal guards are taking people to detention centres where all human rights are gone because people are tortured and abused,” Gola said. “[People] say they would prefer to die at sea than go back to the Libyan Coast Guard.”

Emergency is part of a committee of search and rescue NGOs operating in the Mediterranean, Gola explained. The committee has requested two changes be made to protect the human rights of people migrating across the Mediterranean.

“The first is legal access to these countries, because of course, if you don’t have any legal access to Europe, people are forced to risk their lives at sea,” Gola said. “The second is a coordinated mission at the European level. We think there should be an operation that rescues people at sea and integrates them into the different countries of the European Union.”

Compared to the mass displacement of people caused by Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, the number of people entering Europe via the Mediterranean is quite small. For Gola, this confirms that integration is possible.

“They are not such a big amount of people that they can put our political and economic systems into crisis. We’ve seen that with the Ukrainian crisis,” said Gola. “We have received more than 7 million people throughout Europe, and we have made special measures to welcome them, which I think was completely right. This shows that we are able to face a real migration emergency with much bigger numbers.”

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