Organizations that rescue refugees in the Mediterranean are giving up, for fear of being shot

No safe harbor.
No safe harbor.
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) is suspending activities in the Mediterranean because of “threatening behavior by the Libyan coastguard,” according to Loris De Filippi, who heads the organization in Italy. MSF is the largest NGO involved in search and rescue operations in the area.

Since last week, the Italian coastguard has been training Libya’s coastguard to better control the movement of migrants across the sea. The Libyan coastguard recently warned that MSF rescue boats risk being shot if they venture too close to Libya’s coast, De Filippi tells Reuters. Such shootings have happened in the past.

Aid organizations committed to saving lives in the Mediterranean are increasingly coming into conflict with the Italian government, which is embracing a strong anti-immigration position ahead of the 2018 elections. As more and more Italians blame immigration for the country’s economic woes, Rome is making journeys across the Mediterranean even more perilous.

In February, the government agreed to train Libya’s coast guard in stopping migrant vessels trying to leave the country. International humanitarian organization condemned the move; migrants who are detained in Libya are kept in notoriously bad conditions.

The number of migrant arrivals from Libya to Italian shores decreased following the agreement. Nevertheless, nearly 100,000 people have still reached Italy in this period. Over 2,400 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Search and rescue missions play a key role in reducing the number of casualties at sea. NGOs have played a growing part in them, which has led to accusations of colluding with smugglers.

Providing support to sinking boats has been said to encourage migrants to attempt the journey towards Europe. The Italian government has asked NGOs to sign a code of conduct (link in Italian)—with 13 rules, including one that prescribes migrants not be rescued in Libyan waters except in extraordinary circumstances.

MSF is one of a handful of NGOs that have refused to sign the code of conduct. Save the Children (which has signed the code of conduct) has also announced (link in Italian) that they might withdraw from Mediterranean.