Italy has endorsed Libya’s decision to chase NGOs out of coastal waters in what one charity called “an unacceptable assault on people’s lives and dignity”.
Angelino Alfano, Italy’s foreign minister, told La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, on Sunday (13 August) that Libya’s actions meant that “balance is being restored in the Mediterranean”.
He said the Libyan government was “ready to put in place a search-and-rescue zone in its waters, work with Europe and invest in its coast guards”.
“We need a significant, I repeat a significant European economic investment in Libya and in Africa,” he added.
“Europe has to decide if the theme of migration flows is an absolute priority on the same scale as the economy. For us, it is,” he said.
Alfano’s statement came as most NGOs involved in migrant rescues in the region suspended their operations over the weekend due to threats from Libyan authorities.
It also comes after Italy struck a new accord with Libya to train and equip its coastguard.
Save the Children, a UK-based charity, and Sea Eye, a German NGO, said they would stop rescues on Sunday.
Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), a Geneva-based charity made a similar announcement on Saturday, but said some of its doctors would still work on board a rescue vessel operated by SOS Mediterranee, a German NGO.
Proactiva, a Spanish charity, has also promised to keep up its work.
MSF said it had been “warned” by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome “about security risks associated with threats publicly issued by the Libyan Coast Guard against humanitarian … vessels operating in international waters”.
The charity’s Brice de le Vingne said: “European states and Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. This is an unacceptable assault on people’s lives and dignity.”
He urged “EU and Italian authorities to stop implementing deadly containment strategies that trap people in a country at war with no regard for their protection”.
Save the Children said the Libyan navy had claimed control over a zone up to 70 nautical miles off its shores.
Its operations director, Rob MacGillivray, said that “by entering that area, our operation may be in danger”.
He added that “life could be lost amid this confusion with less rescue capacity in the area”.
The charity also said that migrants who were returned to Libya by the Libyan navy risked horrors. “Reports from inside Libya include incidents of people being beaten, whipped, and hung from trees. We have heard countless reports of women and children suffering persecution, beating and rape,” it said.
Sea Eye's founder Michael Busch Heuer said the Libyan authorities had issued an “an explicit threat against private NGOs” and that it would be “irresponsible toward our crew” to continue its work.
“We leave behind a deadly gap in the Mediterranean,” he added, with the German NGO alone having rescued some 12,000 people since April last year.
Ayoub Qassem, a spokesman for the Libyan coastguard, told the Reuters news agency on Sunday that NGOs could still operate in its zone but had to show more “respect”.
"In general, we do not reject their presence, but we demand from them more cooperation with the state of Libya ... they should show more respect to Libyan sovereignty,” he said.
He said last Tuesday, after Libyan vessels fired warning shots against ProActiva’s boat 13 miles off Libya’s coast, that: “They don't have permission to work there.”
Tripoli has litte control
The EU and UN-backed Libyan government, which is based in Tripoli, has little control over the majority of the country, which is run by rival armed groups, many of which make money from human smuggling.
Some 600,000 people have come from Libya to Italy since the start of 2014, prompting a surge in popularity for anti-immigrant parties in the EU state.
At least 13,000 people have died trying to make the crossing in the same time period.
The Italian interior ministry said there were 11,193 new arrivals in July, compared to 23,552 last July, indicating that its new deal with Libya to keep people from leaving had made a strong and immediate impact.