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Italy’s PM has vowed to stop the boats, but is that a promise she can deliver on?


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When the Italian government impounded one of the last remaining charity ships dedicated to rescuing asylum seekers in trouble on the Mediterranean Sea, many were outraged.

However, executives from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — also known as Doctors Without Borders — merely shook their heads.

“Unfortunately, at this point we are very used to it,” MSF’s deputy representative for search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, Caroline Willemen, said.

“We did expect it to be only a matter of time, unfortunately.”

The MSF ship, the Geo Barents, was docked in Sicily, with crew members bustling around, preparing for the next outing, when Italian authorities boarded it.

They declared it detained for the next 20 days and fined the organisation 10,000 euros ($15,726).

The issue, authorities said, was that the charity had failed to release all of the information on its previous voyage.

Doctors Without Borders is one of the few charities that still operates in the central Mediterranean under restrictions imposed by the Italian government. (Supplied: HUMA/Virginie Nguyen Hoang)

What the captain had refused to provide was the VDR data, the equivalent of a black box on an aeroplane.

In doing so, the captain had breached a new Italian law that mandates the release of all voyage information upon request.

When asked by the ABC why the captain refused to hand the data to Italian authorities, Ms Willemen gave a dry laugh.

A blonde woman smiles at the camera, wearing a t-shirt with a logo and holding a radio under her arm
Caroline WIllemen says it is obvious the Italian government is trying to block the work of NGOs.(Supplied)

She said the data was not relevant — the VDR only holds information useful for investigating a serious crash.

Authorities already had access to the ship’s logbook and information on every rescue it had performed.

Besides, she said, accessing the data was not straightforward and it was her belief that requesting the VDR data was merely a tactic to delay the ship from setting sail.

“We can’t just take this data and put it on a USB. You have to go through the manufacturer,” she said.

“For us, it was kind of obvious that [the data] was not the point.

“We’ve never been asked for it before. So, why are we always asked for something more, something more?”

The stretch of the Mediterranean Sea between North Africa and Italy is one of the main routes for crossing into Europe.

As a result, Italy receives a majority of Europe’s refugee and asylum seeker claims.

Ms Willemen says the new law brought into effect by the Italian government in January is only the latest in a series of attempts to reduce the capacity of NGOs (non-government organisations) such as MSF.

“The way this legislation is designed, from the very beginning, it laid out the possibility for ships to be detained,” she said.

“So, it is not surprising that, sooner or later, they would have looked for a reason to try to detain us.”

Inside Italy’s crackdown on boats

That legislation also includes tight restrictions on the operations of NGOs in the Mediterranean.

Ships are only permitted to perform one rescue per “rotation”, that is, before calling back to port.

“This is quite different to how we used to operate,” Ms Willemen said.

“Before, we used to do an average of 4.2 rescues every rotation. Last winter, we did eight rescues in one rotation. We had [more than] 500 people on board.”

An overcrowded wooden boat packed with 99 migrants is approached by a tender of the humanitarian organization.
Boats used to transport asylum seekers from the north of Africa across the Mediterranean are often overcrowded.(AP Photo: Candida Lobes/MSF)

The process for returning to port has also been amended in the latest bout of legislation.

NGOs must call ahead and request access to a dock as soon as they complete the single rescue, but there’s no guarantee the port they are assigned will be the closest one.

“Twice [since December] we have been assigned to Ancona [a city on the other side of the country], and these distances easily add three to four days to our sailing time,” Ms Willemen said.

“In bad conditions, people are seasick, cold and there is no reason to do this.”

When directing them north, Italian authorities tell NGOs that refugee-processing centres in the closer, more southern ports are overwhelmed, Ms Willemen said.

“But, logically, this makes zero sense,” she added.

“The ship is very slow. In some conditions, the speed of a ship is walking speed. It makes more sense to dock then bus people to the north.

“There is absolutely no reason to do this other than keeping us longer outside of the area we operate in normally.”

Meloni’s powers limited

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni vowed upon election to end the practice of asylum seekers sailing across the Mediterranean.

a closeup of Meloni's face as she stands in front of EU flags
Giorgia Meloni has urged her fellow EU leaders to take action against asylum seekers arriving by boat.(Reuters: Yves Herman)

There are complex laws, however, that govern Italy’s obligations to grant asylum to those who make the dangerous crossing.

Once an asylum seeker enters the territory of a country in the European Union, the bloc’s laws state that the country is obliged to see out that person’s application for asylum.

Italy has struggled with economic stagnation for decades, and unemployment figures and general inequality are typically high in southern coastal areas.

Given the high proportion of asylum seekers arriving in recent years, it is common for migrants to be targeted in political conversations around these issues.

As migration and refugee laws are designed by the EU, Ms Meloni is not in a position herself to action any policy change.

She can, however, disparage and restrict the operations of NGOs that come to the rescue of refugees.

Ms Meloni said her legislation, while respecting international law, aimed to put a brake on NGO ships acting as “ferry boats” for migrants, travelling “back and forth with human traffickers to shuttle people from one country to the other”.

Italian Institute for International Political Studies senior research fellow Matteo Villa, who looks at migration trends, said that NGOs have become a scapegoat for an issue that is out of the Italian government’s hands.

“NGOs are the only feasible and actionable thing for a government that is not able to govern migration,” he said.

A man in a blue suit smiles at the camera.
Matteo Villa says NGOs are an easy target for the Italian government bound by EU migration laws.(Supplied)

“They are the only ones that can be effectively blamed, given that they are also politicised — at least a good half of them are highly politicised and highly left wing, so it’s a perfect scapegoat.”

Ms Willemen said Doctors Without Borders had been accused of working directly with people smugglers, and encouraging more people to make the dangerous journey, an allegation that, she said, independent research had shown was false.

Most dangerous migrant crossing in the world

Last year, the number of rescues performed by NGOs in the central Mediterranean fell by more than 50 per cent.

At the same time, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Italy by boat more than doubled. The asylum applications for half of those were rejected.

The United Nations Missing Migrants Project has registered more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014, making it, by far, the most dangerous migrant crossing in the world.

Last week, dozens of bodies washed ashore in Calabria in southern Italy, after a wooden boat carrying hundreds of people was wrecked offshore.

Debris covers sand on a beach as people can be seen gathered in the background.
More than 60 people died when a migrant boat was shipwrecked off the coast of Sicily.(Reuters: Remo Casilli)

The Italian prime minister expressed “deep sorrow” after the incident and blamed the deaths on people smugglers.

She said she had written to the European Council and European Commission, calling for immediate action to stop migrant boat departures in order to prevent more deaths.

“The more people depart, the more risk dying,” she said.

“The government is committed to preventing departures and, with them, the unfolding of these tragedies, and will continue to do so.”

Ms Willemen acknowledged that she would be incorrect to suggest the Geo Barents would have prevented the tragedy if it were not impounded, but said the 20 days at port would carry a significant cost.

“I can never say that, if we weren’t detained, would we have been able to rescue this boat. But we know that, in the 20 days we are stuck there, [there] will be boats we would have rescued.”

She said Doctors Without Borders was considering its legal options to fight the charge, but the result would only be symbolic.

“We are looking into ways of appealing this. But the speed with which you can appeal, in all likelihood, it will not be fast enough to reduce the time of detention,” Ms Willemen said.

“Even if we can prove this is illegitimate, it can never bring back the 20 days we were not at sea.”

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