Maritime: The March 2018 election of a coalition government containing elements of Italy’s political far-right has resulted in a series of incidents in which vessels carrying refugees rescued from the Mediterranean were denied access to ports throughout the country.
The most recent case, between 15 and 23 August 2018, saw Italian Coastguard vessel Diciotti being denied access to Italian ports whilst carrying 177 migrants rescued from within the vicinity of Malta. On 20 August, the vessel was permitted to dock in Sicily, however, the rescued migrants have not been permitted to disembark. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has indicated that they will be permitted to disembark only if they are to be settled in other EU countries or returned to Libya.
A series of previous incidents have resulted in vessels operated by non-governmental organisations (NGO) or commercial vessels being left in a state of limbo. These vessels recovered migrants in accordance with international obligations but were unable to return them to land due to political efforts to deny them port access.
The ongoing migrant crisis has persistently posed threats to commercial traffic through the Mediterranean. The increased political tensions, posturing, and harsher measures which have recently been implemented are, however, only likely to increase these risks to maritime operations. These risks stem from a direct threat of stowaways or supply-chain infiltration in North African ports and from reputational harm or business disruption which may follow from engagement with, or avoidance of, rescue operations.
The International Convention of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), requires the masters of merchant vessels to provide assistance to any request for aid, regardless of source. In this manner, commercial vessels transiting the Mediterranean may be compelled to change course to either conduct or support rescue operations. Failure to comply with these obligations may open vessel operators to legal risks, however, compliance may cause significant disruption to commercial operations.
Reporting suggests that certain smuggling groups are intentionally leveraging SOLAS obligations and the presence of NGO rescue operations to accelerate their trafficking. Traffickers appear to tow migrant rafts beyond 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast before triggering distress flares or sending a mayday and abandoning the raft. Using variations on this tactic, smugglers can significantly reduce their round-trip time and risk to their own vessels, while deferring the cost to commercial, NGO, and nation-state shipping.
Migrants have generally moved into a number of North African states as one of their final stages on a journey from the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. The most heavily travelled route makes use of Libya as the launch-point, aiming to reach southern Italy, or the islands of Sicily, or Malta. Although the maritime distances in this journey are longer than either the Turkey-Greece or Morocco-Spain crossings, the nature of Libya as a failed state acts to make it the most permissive environment for human traffickers. This lawless environment has also led to a culture of abuse towards migrants by the smuggling groups.
Efforts to renew oil exports from ports and refineries along the Libyan coast may also be providing additional cover for smuggling and migration. At present, no evidence suggests that stowaways have successfully boarded tankers at these ports, however, land-based infrastructure has been compromised on several occasions. For example, eight migrants were found suffocated in a fuel container in Zuwara on 16 July 2018, highlighting that land transit routes for oil and gas may provide cover for traffickers.
Since 2013, an estimated 690,000 illegal migrants have entered Italy, mostly by boat. The government and NGOs believe approximately 500,000 remain in the country without papers, including both the failed asylum seekers who are presently attracting most media attention, as well as legal visitors who have overstayed their visas. Together, these account for approximately 0.9 per cent of the Italian population. The 120,000 estimated asylum seekers who arrived through 2017 cost approximately €4.2 billion, roughly 0.45 per cent of the national budget, while accounting for roughly 0.2 per cent of Italy’s population. This cost included both care and maritime rescue operations, although does not account for additional funds provided by the EU to support Mediterranean rescue and recovery operations.
The apparent cost of the migrants has been one of the factors exploited by populists on both sides of Italy’s political spectrum, in combination with the rapid and noticeable demographic in some smaller towns. Italy has faced extensive and persistent pressures on its government finances since the 2008 financial crash, having only recently reached compliance with the terms of its international bailouts. In light of stretched public finances and cuts to public services, the expenditure on refugees and migrants who have, by definition, not yet contributed to the state, has been an easy target for populist politicians. The Five Star Movement and the League, disparate- and right-wing populist groups respectively, allied to form a governing coalition following the March 2018 general election. Both parties made anti-immigration rhetoric a key element of their electoral platform.
The response to the crisis in European capitals has varied substantially, with trends apparent based on geography and change-over-time. Broadly, western and southern European countries were initially welcoming when migration rapidly escalated in 2013. However, through 2016-2018, ethno-nationalist and far-right groups have gained increased political traction across these countries, leading to increased official and social hostility to migrants. The more ethnically homogeneous states in Central and Eastern Europe typically resisted international and regional requests to settle migrants from the beginning of the crisis.
Although both Italy’s Five Star and the League have opposed the European Union in numerous areas on ideological grounds, the bloc’s conventions for dealing with asylum seekers was not intended to deal with the scale of the current crisis. This has led to Italy and other arrival states bearing the brunt of the immigration burden. A key concern remains that the Dublin Regulation stipulates that asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the country of arrival, rather than to any state in the EU. It can be argued that this is a key driver behind the behaviour of Italy and Malta in seeking to prevent migrants from disembarking on their territory. Were the Dublin Regulation amended to allow migrants to apply to any EU state from their country of arrival, these Mediterranean nations would be less inclined to intentionally obstruct rescue operations.
Reforms of this nature are unlikely, however, due to the aforementioned change in the political climate throughout Western Europe, and the continued intransigence of the Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia). All EU member states maintain a veto over new Europe-wide treaties or legislation, and the current climate makes acceptance of such a change politically suicidal to a number of the bloc’s national governments. The Visegrad Group, in particular, has consistently rejected previous efforts to spread the refugee burden, despite the otherwise close ideological ties between their government parties and the Italian populists vocally demanding this change.
Right-wing groups across the continent continue to propagate a message of fear concerning migrants, emphasising their origin from cultures which may appear alien to a romanticised vision of Europe. The high number of Muslim refugees from the Middle East has also added fuel to various anti-Islamic groups which initially gained traction following the Islamist-inspired terror attacks of the past 20 years. That the migrant crisis coincided with a spike of such attacks in Europe by the Islamic State has only made these accusations more strident. Asylum seekers have also been blamed for a perceived rise in crime. Outlier incidents, such as a spate of sexual assaults in Germany on New Year’s Eve 2015/16, and slight increases in petty crime around asylum processing centres, have been seized upon to push right-wing groups’ political support. This, in turn, has led to popular pressure to completely halt the flow of migrants, and effectively stifled public discussion over realistic solutions or mitigations for the crisis.
Efforts at resolution
At present, the crisis appears to be resolved on a vessel-by-vessel basis. The Diciotti initially made efforts to berth in Malta due to the proximity to the island to the rescue site, before being permitted into Catania. Prior to the present Diciotti incident, an NGO vessel refused access to Italian ports was eventually permitted to berth in Spain, following a protracted period of negotiation between EU states. Political paralysis has set in as there is no clear vision of what an end to the crisis would look like. The most apparent options being a total halt on migration or effective distribution of migrants among member states to minimise their effect on local communities.
Despite the apparently ad-hoc nature of the present efforts to stem the flow of migrants, longer-term measures have been attempted, most prominently the Italian- and EU-led efforts to fund and train an effective Libyan coastguard. Whilst such an effort would typically be unremarkable, these efforts have in fact resulted in direct negotiations with a series of militias which hold key areas on the Libyan coast. Many of these groups have a dubious legacy from the Libyan civil war and by funding groups separate from the central government, the efforts may be directly undermining the authority of Libya’s persistently crisis-ridden government. There is also significant evidence that the groups being trained to provide coastguard services have direct and intimate connections with the very trafficking groups they are intended to fight. Additionally, they have been accused of participating in attacks against NGO rescue vessels, particularly in the earlier days of the programs in 2016.
Vessel operators should remain aware of the persistent migration crisis in the Mediterranean and consider their obligations to seafarers under the SOLAS convention.
All vessels are strongly advised to proceed with caution when entering Libyan waters and continually liaise with the relevant authorities and security forces in order to ensure compliance with port controls. Prior contact with port operators should be considered essential in order to report on the current situation on the ground at regular intervals. Vessels should be ready and instructed to take, at short notice, appropriate steps to prioritise safety. In addition, vessels should endeavour to minimise ship-port interface activities such as crew changes, bunkering, and taking on stores. It is advisable to document/record specific actions taken in the ship’s security records.
Travellers to southern Italy should expect increased security measures around ports and at coastal locations. Areas surrounding migrant camps may experience slightly elevated levels of petty crime and may also attract protests and civil unrest. Enhanced security measures are not required, however, situational awareness should be maintained at all times, and efforts should be taken to avoid engagement with any protesters. All travellers may benefit from the use of travel tracking and intelligence software to enhance situational awareness and permit employers to effectively implement duty of care.