NGOs Say It's Getting Harder To Save Lives At Sea

Italy has been at the forefront of Europe's refugee crisis, but the government is now pushing back against refugees and migrants with a new code of conduct that some aid organizations worry will cost lives.

This is the Iuventa. It’s what’s known as a search and rescue (SAR) vessel, spending its days picking up refugees and migrants stranded in the Mediterranean.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

Yesterday, there was confusion over whether the Iuventa had been impounded by Italian authorities, and why.

This morning, the boat’s crew confirmed in a statement posted on Twitter that the boat had been "confiscated" by Italian authorities, and that the crew was being questioned. BuzzFeed News was unable to reach anyone from the boat for comment.

In a statement posted on its official Facebook page, the volunteer organization said its legal team was working hard to "examine the legal basis of the confiscation of our ship."

Stringer . / Reuters

"It is extremely difficult to be forced to stand still and watch the continuing distress of people and loss of life in the Mediterranean. In the SAR zone within the last two days, the bodies of eight people were recovered," the statement continued. "The seizure of our ship prevents us from working in the SAR zone and from being able to help."

The Iuventa is funded by German NGO Jugend Rettet, one of five NGOs which have refused to sign a new code of conduct drawn up by the Italian government.

Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

Save the Children and Proactiva Open Arms have agreed to sign onto the guidelines, but Germany's Sea-Watch and Sea-Eye, as well as France's SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders), declined to sign it.

During a press conference on Wednesday, the chief prosecutor for the case, Ambrogio Cartosio, said his investigation was ongoing and that no one had yet been charged.

"The evidence is serious," Cartosio said. "We have evidence of encounters between traffickers, who escorted illegal immigrants to the Iuventa, and members of the boat's crew."

Commenting on the investigation into the boat, MSF and Human Rights Watch both questioned the timing of the Iuventa's impoundment when asked by BuzzFeed News.

But Cartosio denied that there was any connection between the German NGOs' refusal to sign the code and the boat's confiscation.

The code has proved contentious. When an early version was leaked in July, humanitarian groups roundly condemned the draft, saying it could endanger lives in the Med.

Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

One of the biggest concerns is the Italian authorities' desire to stop SAR vessels transferring refugees or migrants from boat to boat. NGOs claim this is a standard part of their work.

“It’s a very common practice, and is a practice that Italian authorities have long instructed NGOs to do,” Judith Sunderland, associate director for HRW’s Europe and Central Asia division, explained to BuzzFeed News from Italy. “This transshipping is very common but this code of conduct is trying to limit this.”

Instead, once a vessel had rescued one group, it would be forced to return to an Italian port — preventing them from making more rescues. “In practice it means you will have less boats in the area where ships run into trouble and need assistant. What that may do is lead to more deaths,” Sunderland said.

The stretch of water between Libya and Italy is already hugely dangerous for refugees to cross.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

This year alone, 2,385 men, women, and children have died attempting to make the crossing to Europe, according to figures published by the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees in July.

In addition, the code would reduce the number of boats in the area, Hassiba Sahraoui, a spokesperson for MSF who is based in Italy, said. She explained it can take up to 48 hours for a boat to return to port and disembark its passengers, during which period there would be stretches of waters without rescue ships nearby.

"This rule, which was not justified by operational practices, was in fact just [about] reducing the capacity at sea," Sahraoui told BuzzFeed News. "This idea was to reduce the capacity at sea."

Amnesty International said in a statement that the code "put ties on the ability of NGOs to rescue people at sea, demonstrating just how misguided its whole approach is." Last month, when the draft of the code was leaked, Amnesty spokesperson Colm O’Gorman said it “could put lives at risk".

Another contentious point of the code is that rescuers will have police officers on board. MSF states they cannot do — as a neutral party their only intention is to save lives. “We have nothing to hide, we are a humanitarian organization,” Sahraoui said, “but we are being coopted into becoming a branch of the police and the law enforcement agencies.”

Sahraoui, who has had just three meetings with Italian authorities about the code, said she had repeatedly asked for guarantees that these enforcement officers would not enter the clinics, as well as around medical confidentiality, but that “the authorities were not able or willing to give such assurances”.

“We play by the rules and we respect the laws but our concerns, which were presented in a very constructive manner, were simply dismissed.”

The implementation of the code comes as Italy faces increasing internal pressures over the number of refugees arriving on its shores.

Antonio Parrinello / Reuters

The country has welcomed 95,088 people this year alone, according to UNHCR. The left-wing government is facing an election next year, and is under pressure to tackle what many in the country see as a growing issue.

Much of the rhetoric against the NGOs' work comes from a revised 2014 Frontex report that stated SAR vessels were a "pull factor" for refugees. But the report itself was revised after it was leaked, and its conclusion was disputed.

Despite this, Sahraoui said there was a feeling that NGOs in the Med were being “scapegoated” for the wider refugee crisis, and that there had been “this narrative that NGOs were breaching the law”. Of the Italian authorities acting now, she cited the upcoming election and noted, “It [the situation] is not easy, it is complex, and you need a quick win.”

“For all the wrong reasons this is the key issue now in any election,” she said.

Sunderland says the code is “just inside the limits of maritime law,” and in practice the worry for NGOs operating in the area is that it will make their roles that much harder — especially for smaller aid groups.

“We could see that non-compliance with the code, either because the NGO hasn’t signed it or because something happens or, say, the authorities decide they have breached one of the provisions, the threat is that they could be denied disembarkation in Italian ports. That raises the specter of stranded migrants at sea.”

None of the NGOs interviewed was sure what the ramifications of the code may be, but all were concerned about the atmosphere it has created. The Italian government has said that groups operating outside the “organized system of sea rescue”, i.e. the code, would face “all the consequences”. What that means in practice remains to be seen.


Hassiba Sahraoui's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.