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12th July 2017, 12:44:44 UTC

Separately, Dáil debates Government motion proposing Irish Defence forces join the EU’s Operation Sophia

Thousands more refugees and migrants could be at risk of dying at sea if a flawed code of conduct for nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) conducting search and rescue in the central Mediterranean is put into practice, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today after reviewing a leaked draft of the document. Last week, Amnesty International released a new report, “A Perfect Storm”, about how failing EU policies are linked to this soaring death toll and the abhorrent abuses faced by thousands of refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centres.

“Perversely, the proposed code of conduct for NGOs saving lives in the Mediterranean could put lives at risk. Attempts to restrict life-saving NGO search and rescue operations risk endangering thousands of lives by impeding rescue boats from accessing the perilous waters near Libya,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

The code of conduct, drafted by Italy, was first proposed at an informal meeting of the European Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on July 6, 2017.

The draft pact would curtail the work of NGOs carrying out search and rescue operations on the central Mediterranean by:

  •        Barring them from entering Libyan territorial waters to undertake rescues
  •        Banning them from using lights to signal their location to vessels at imminent risk of sinking
  •        Forcing them to return to port to disembark refugees and migrants, rather than allowing them to transfer rescued people onto other vessels at sea if necessary. This would force NGOs search-and-rescue teams to move away for long periods from the area where they are needed, leaving more people at risk of drowning in the Central Mediterranean

The draft includes the threat of refusal to allow vessels from NGOs to disembark in Italy if they do not sign the code or fail to comply with any of its provisions.

Any code of conduct, if necessary, should have the goal of making rescue operations at sea more effective at saving lives, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.  It should be agreed upon consultation with the groups involved in search and rescue, should apply to all vessels carrying out rescues in the Mediterranean, and should not be linked to disembarkation.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe that the code of conduct may in some cases hinder rescue operations and delay disembarkations in a safe place within a reasonable amount of time, breaching the obligations that both states and shipmasters have under international law of the sea.

Italy’s proposal for a code of conduct for NGOs comes amid a concerted smear campaign against these groups, and coincides with Italy’s request for more sharing of responsibility among EU member states for rescue and disembarkation. The EU and its member countries have failed to provide Italy and other front-line member states with the shared support and assistance they need. Instead the EU has focusing on training the Libyan coastguard, under the UN-backed Government of National Accord, to build its capacity to intercept boats. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented reckless and abusive behaviour by Libyan coastguard forces.

“NGOs are out there in the Mediterranean rescuing people because the EU is not. Given the scale of tragedies at sea and the horrific abuses migrants and asylum seekers face in Libya, the EU should work with Italy to enhance robust search and rescue in the waters off Libya, not limit it,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Separately, Dáil Éíreann will this evening debate a Government motion proposing that Irish Defence forces would join the EU’s Operation Sophia

“We have commended the Irish Naval Service for its tireless work rescuing men, women and children making the perilous journey across the central Mediterranean. This search and rescue humanitarian work, on behalf of the Irish people, is something we can all be proud of. However, we are very concerned that any shift towards a more militarised mandate could result in reduced capacity for humanitarian deployments. Diverting search and rescue capacities to combatting smuggling is not the answer to the continuing crisis in the central Mediterranean.  We have sought assurances from government to that end. We hope that this evening’s Dáil debate provides some much needed clarity.

“We are also concerned about Operation Sophia and the EU’s wider response to the migration crisis. The Irish government must use its influence at EU level to push for policy approaches which respect and protect the human rights of refugees and migrants. Lives must be put first by ensuring an adequate number of vessels, with search and rescue as their primary purpose, are deployed along routes taken by refugees and migrant boats,” said Colm O’Gorman.

Notes for editors:
On 12 July, the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament will hold an “exchange of views on Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean” between MEPs, the Italian coastguard, the EU border management agency FRONTEX, and NGOs.

More than 2,000 people have died in the central Mediterranean since January 2017 according to the International Organisation for Migration.

NGOs have rescued more than 80,000 refugees and migrants crossing from Libya towards Italy since the Italian operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ was removed in 2014.

During a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday 4 July, both the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) were critical of the proposed NGO code of conduct.

Two parliamentary committee inquiries this year in Italy found no evidence of misconduct on the part of NGOs undertaking search and rescue and their contribution to search and rescue activities. The Italian coastguard and Navy have expressed their view that NGOs have been helpful and cooperative.