ROME—It has been a relatively quiet week out in the Mediterranean along the Libyan territorial waters.
Sure, the usual tragic stories are unfolding as nongovernmental rescue boats ply the sea in search of migrants escaping war and poverty. But there have only been a few hundred people in the water each day, far less than the thousand or so that were being picked up on a daily basis a few weeks ago.
One rescue included the discovery of eight bodies, including the mother and older brother of Sara, a 2-year-old African girl who now faces an uncertain future all alone, which is sadly so common such stories don’t even make news anymore.
But the relative silence is surely the calm before what promises to be a storm of epic proportions as anti-NGO boats race to the search zone on the perimeter of Libyan waters to try to curtail rescue missions and stop the flow of desperate people into Europe through Italy.
The first to arrive will be the C-Star, commandeered by the alt-right “identitarian” Defend Europe activists, who have promised to defend the continent's borders from illegal immigration “at any cost.” In a video posted from onboard their ship early Wednesday morning, it appears they are ready to keep their promise to “observe and overwatch the NGOs, stop human trafficking... and to save Europe.”
Just how they plan to do that with their massive, retrofitted Finnish naval ship remains worryingly unclear. They’ve already run into trouble after protesters blocked them from docking in Catania, on Sicily, to pick up their crew, which forced them to reroute to Cyprus to meet them there.
The second group to arrive will be the Italian navy, which on Tuesday presented a plan to Italy’s Commission on Foreign and Defense Policy describing how it will pivot to a new mandate to help the Libyan coast guard attempt to stop smugglers’ ships from reaching international waters, where the NGO boats are waiting, and away from search-and-rescue operations under the now-defunct Mare Nostrum operation.
The presence of Italian warships in Libya’s territorial waters will effectively set up a naval barrier that smugglers will have to cunningly get around to get their human cargo to Europe. Aid groups warn the move will put even more lives at risk, echoing earlier pleas that a lack of coherent strategy by Europe to deal with the migrant crisis is growing deadlier. More than 7,000 people are estimated to have died trying to make the crossing since 2016, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees, though the numbers are inarguably low, as many smugglers’ vessels go down full of people without witnesses to their demise.
“Rather than sending ships to help save lives and offer protection to desperate refugees and migrants, Italy is planning to deploy warships to push them back to Libya,” said Amnesty International’s Europe Director John Dalhuisen in a statement. “This shameful strategy is not designed to end the spiralling death toll in the central Mediterranean but rather to keep refugees and migrants from Italian shores. Claims that the rights of those returned will be respected will ring hollow in the ears of those that have fled horrific abuse in Libyan detention centers.”
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti denied the country would be part of an actual naval blockade, insisting it would only respond to requests directly from Libya regarding specific interventions to stop migrant vessels. It is unclear whether the Italian navy will conduct actual rescue missions—and if it does, where it would take the people it picks up under the new mandate.
Still, the ships are preparing to embark to the Libyan coast, where they promise to be in position by this weekend. Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s prime minister, called the operation a “turning point” to stop the flow of people into the country.
If the smugglers’ vessels reach international waters, their chances of making it to Europe are much better because those rescued by NGOs and merchant vessels, as well as the Italian coast guard, are always taken directly to Italian ports, though that may also change soon.
Last week, the Italian government issued a code of conduct for NGOs, which Doctors Without Borders and the German rescue group Jugend Rettet refused to sign. Among the points the two groups disagreed with are allowing armed Italian officials to board the rescue ships and prohibiting the transfer of migrants between NGO vessels, which is commonly done to ensure a constant presence of charity ships in the search-and-rescue zone while the larger, faster vessels do the ferrying of those rescued to Italian ports.
On Wednesday, just days after the group refused to sign, one of the Jugend Rettet’s ships was stopped off the island of Lampedusa by the Italian coast guard for a surprise inspection that resulted in the ship being seized while its crew members are investigated for abetting illegal immigration by a local Sicilian magistrate. Italian authorities have vowed that those who don’t sign the code of conduct will be prohibited from docking at Italian ports, which could force aid groups to take migrants to Greece, Malta, Spain, or France.
The number of arrivals this year is fast approaching 100,000, UNHCR says, on par with 2016. Aid groups have said more than half a million people are in Libya either stuck in detention centers run by militias or waiting for smugglers to send them to Europe. Italy announced last week that its refugee centers, which have a capacity of 200,000, are now overflowing, and that it is exasperated with Europe not sharing the burden of housing and helping them.
The impending battles at sea will almost certainly change the dynamic, which many argue amounts to a refugee and migrant taxi service conducted by the NGO charity ships. But it remains to be seen if that means fewer arrivals in Italy—or an even greater loss of life at sea.