It comes during a year in which more than 90,000 migrants have so far arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean, mainly from Libya and Tunisia – an increase of almost 50% over the same period in 2021. Nearly 2,000 people have died or are missing on sea .
Earlier this month, a diplomatic spat broke out when Italy maneuvered France into accepting a humanitarian rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, with 234 migrants on board. The right-wing government in Rome had denied her access to a port for weeks.
France retaliated by suspending its participation in an EU solidarity pact to take in about 3,000 people, in a process known as “relocation”, who had arrived in Italy this year, and sent agents to reinforce southern border crossings and prevent migrants from entering.
“If Italy does not accept the boats, does not accept the law of the sea and the nearest safe haven, there is no reason that the countries that move, France and Germany, should be the same countries that accept the boats or the migrants directly from Africa or Asia,” said French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.
The EU’s executive, the European Commission, has submitted an action plan. Part of that plan is the idea of imposing stricter rules on ships that carry out search and rescue work. Neither the EU nor any of its member states actively searches for migrants at sea unless they receive a distress call.
The plan calls on the EU to support “discussions in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on the need for a specific framework and guidelines for ships specifically targeting search and rescue activities, in particular with a view to developments in the European Union. context.”
After the meeting, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “We need dialogue, rules and order.”
“Operations in the Mediterranean and elsewhere cannot be conducted in a Wild West situation where everyone is doing everything and it’s okay,” Schinas told reporters in Brussels.
He said the commission would help the 27 member states come up with rules, principles and strategies to improve cooperation between those who rescue people at sea and the countries that should receive them.
For its part, the IMO has expressed concern about the disembarkation queue. He recalled that under international law, a search and rescue operation is not terminated until the survivors have been taken to a safe place on land.
To the dismay of charities, Italy has long seized ships owned by NGOs carrying rescued migrants or tying up their crews in lawsuits to dissuade them. Greece has also tried to discourage humanitarian organizations from helping people trying to enter Europe without permission.
Darmanin told reporters that “the NGOs in the Mediterranean are there to rescue people and obviously should not come into contact with any smuggling organization under any circumstances.”
Other EU countries are resisting new rules that make it impossible for NGO ships to save lives.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said that with so many lives at stake in the Mediterranean, his agency “appreciates the vital importance of rescue at sea by all actors, including NGO rescue ships.”
The International Rescue Committee, a migrant aid organization, called on the EU to set up its own “search and rescue operations” and to work with NGOs to ensure that everyone rescued at sea is disembarked quickly and safely.