NGOs focused on saving tens of thousands of refugees stranded on the Mediterranean denounce a new code that attempts to restrict their work, arguing the real problem is the failure of other EU states to live up to their humanitarian responsibilities.
ROME — Tecle has been in Rome since September. She's alone, illiterate and still trying to find her husband, who was arrested on the border between Eritrea and Sudan while trying to save her from the men who were raping her.
Despite her ordeal, Tecle is one of the lucky ones — she is alive, after being rescued at sea by a boat run by one of the NGOs that has stepped in where European governments are reluctant to tread; rescuing refugees. Now she's living in a reception centre on the outskirts of Rome. And Italy is looking to clamp down on the NGO-run rescue missions that save the lives of people like Tecle, both by sending a navy mission to patrol Libyan waters and introducing a new "code."
When she left Eritrea with her husband, Tecle was only 26. The couple had to leave their eight-year-old son home in the Eritrean village from where they were running away, planning on bringing him over once they had reached their destination. Fleeing poverty and hunger, they wanted a better future for their son and for themselves.
Like most of the refugees who make it to Italy, the path to get there was a deeply traumatic and costly one.
Tecle and her husband gave $2,000 to smugglers to leave Eritrea and get to Libya. At the border with Sudan, the smugglers took them to a transit house to meet the smugglers who would take them on the next leg of their journey, into Libya.
These traffickers selected three women from the groupe to abuse. Tecle was one of the women they picked. They raped her all night long.
"I heard my husband shouting in the other room and I heard men beating him, until I heard only silence. I fainted with pain and suffering. When I woke up my husband wasn't there anymore, and I was in a state of shock."
The next morning, Tecle was forced to climb onto a truck with the other Eritrean refugees heading to the Libyan coast.
There she waited with them for three weeks in a hot and dirty house near Libya's Garabulli coast, around 60 kilometres to the east of Tripoli.
"There was no water and no food, we were all cramped into a single room. There were pregnant women and every day more refugees came. We were asked for more money, about $1,500 per person. Anyone who couldn't pay was beaten and threatened. Some of the men were taken out of the room and never came back; we never saw them again."
"When I was on the rubber boat to cross the Mediterranean, I thought I was going to die. I was thinking of my husband and of my son, and I saw only this black sea in front of me. "
Tecle was rescued from the overloaded rubber boat in the middle of the night last September by one of the ships run by a well-known NGO that have been in the Mediterranean for years, dedicated to saving lives of people whom most governments prefer to try to ignore.
NGOs refuse to sign
Since the beginning of 2017,111,514 refugees have arrived in Europe, according to the official data provided by the IOM, the International Organization for Migration. At least 2,360 of them lost their lives in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Around 85 percent of the rescued refugees have been registered in Italy, which says other EU governments have left it to carry an unfair share of the burden of welcoming those seeking refuge in Europe.
In recent months, the issue of ships in the Mediterranean has been fiercely debated in Italy and the rest of Europe.
On July 25, there was a meeting at the Italian interior ministry to define a Code of Conduct for the eight NGOs running the refugee sea rescue operations. The ministry officially presented the Code of Conduct to NGOs and asked them to sign it. Five out of the eight NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders, Sea Watch, SOS MEDITERRANEE, Sea Eye, Jugend Rettet, the Lifeboat Foundation and the Boat Refugee Foundation, refused to sign. Only three — Save the Children, MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) and Proactiva Open Arms — accepted to do so.
Then, a rescue boat belonging to Jugend Rettet was seized by the Italian authorities on Wednesday.
The interior ministry, chaired by Marco Minniti, wants refugees to be rescued by the Libyan coast guard. Italy signed an agreement with Libyan coast guards last March, providing them with four armed patrol boats.
Critics say the Italian government is taking these steps because it doesn't want the NGO rescue boats in the Mediterranean anymore. For this reason, they sent a navy ship to patrol the Libyan coast earlier this week, and they are stopping the NGOs that didn't sign the code and to establish rules that should be followed by the humanitarian organisations that have been operating off the Libyan coasts for years.
The Code of Conduct prohibits NGO boats from operating in Libyan waters, turning off the on-board transponder (a wireless communications device), turning on lights to make their presence at sea obvious to anyone in the area and making calls to facilitate the departure and embarkation of migrants.
The NGOs must also undertake to notify the Italian authorities of any rescue operations that take place, not to transfer their human "cargo" from one ship to another, to accept police officers on board, and to declare their sources of funding.
The code would open the door to greater oversight of humanitarian organisations by the Italian authorities. NGOs would need to recover the engines from the boat that they rescue refugees from, in order to prevent them being used again by traffickers.
Many of the NGOs working to save refugees are outraged over the new code.
"We will not accept the presence of the police on board, we are a humanitarian organisation, we save lives," Sandra Hammamy of the SeaWatch organisation, another NGO working in the Mediterranean rescuing migrants, told reporters outside the interior ministry at the end of the meeting.
"It is clear to everyone that Italy has been left alone by the European Union, but it is not fair to blame the NGOs," she said.
"Italy is turning on us because Europe does not listen to the Italian government. We bring migrants to Italy and not to Malta in Spain and Germany because the Maritime Coordination Centre directs us to do so."
Doctors without Borders, meanwhile, confirmed in a note that it was willing "to participate in the discussion [with the Italian authorities] with an open and constructive approach."
"We have welcomed efforts to strengthen the search and rescue capabilities in the Mediterranean," says Gabriele Eminente, MSF's general manager. "But at the same time, we have expressed concern about some elements and ambiguities contained in the code."
After the first rumours about the Code of Conduct, the Association of Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI), an advocacy organisation that focuses on providing information about maritime and migration laws, issued its own position paper in which they stressed that the association "expresses full support for the search and rescue missions of NGOs, also because they are responsible for tasks that the European Union has shown have no will or ability to carry out, even though they [the EU and its member states] have the primary responsibility."
The ASGI denounced the push for the Code of Conduct as being part of "a wider strategy to discredit NGOs that promote solidarity and the active promotion of human rights in the context of migration." It condemned the code and related migration policy efforts in the EU as being aimed at "depriving migrants of the protection of the law and exposing them to unacceptable violations of their lives, physical and moral integrity and their dignity."
The ASGI report also argued that the existing legal and practical framework — the NGOs already work under the co-ordination of the Search and Rescue centre in Rome and in respect of navigation laws — are perfectly adequate.
In recent weeks, one of the proposals made by Italian politicians, although the government never explicitly backed it, was to close the Italian ports to the NGO rescue boats in protest against other European countries refusing to accept refugees.
"The work of NGOs accounts for about 30 percent of the rescue in the Mediterranean," recalls Michele Trainiti, head of research and rescue operations for Doctors Without Borders.
"What worries us most is the uncertainty and the risk of leaving people on board for a long time," Trainiti said, about the possibility of Italian ports being closed. "After rescues the priority is to reach the nearest secure port as quickly as possible. People are in critical condition, they come from the hell of Libya, where they have suffered everything."
According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the problem is a logistical one rather than it being a problem about NGOs. There simply aren't enough search and rescue vessels, and MSF says the human suffering caused by transporting people who have been picked up off the Libyan coast means Italian ports are the only real option.
"There are not enough ships," he explained. "Sailing for France would take about three days longer, while going to Spain takes a week longer than it does for Italy."
"We are not the ones who decide where to go," Trainiti said, noting that each rescue operation is coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard. We know the stress that the Italian reception system has undergone, but even removing a ship that does search and rescue [long enough to travel to French or Spanish ports] means taking away valuable resources."
And to those who ask why they can not land in Malta, Trainiti says that the Italian port of Lampedusa is a better-resourced and safer port.
"Malta refuses to accept them and honestly, even if they accepted, after disembarking 5,000 people there would be no more space," Trainiti said. "The problem would be solved if the European states would make more ships available, to form a joint political response, like we have been asking for."
Libyan authorities divided over Italian ships
All the controversy surrounding NGOs and their rescue operations at sea happens at a very important diplomatic point for Libya, the North African country via which the vast majority of refugees are transiting through before heading to European shores.
An agreement between rival factions was announced during recent talks in Paris between Fayez Al Sarraj, prime minister of the UN-backed government in Tripoli and Khalifa Haftar, the influential leader of the Libyan National Army.
Both Libyan leaders pledged support in Paris for a road map that will create a unity government following imminent elections.
After the Paris talks, Sarraj met the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
"We work against the traffickers together with the Libyan, central and local authorities," the Italian premier said, adding that Germany has promised greater support for Italian initiatives to combat human trafficking and Italian-Libyan co-operation.
Sarraj has asked the Italian government for technical support with its naval units against human trafficking, Gentiloni said, and Italy is considering that request.
Yet Haftar is taking a very different stance, declaring the presence of any Italian ships in Libyan waters to be "a violation of sovereignty". The army head has ordered naval bases in four Libyan cities to block ships from the former colonial power.
The possibility of military ships, whether Libyan or Italian, patrolling the coasts of Libya also worries the NGOs.
Jacob, who does not want to mention his surname or the name of the organisation he works for, has been at sea for five months.
He has recovered many bodies and listened to the stories of hundreds of refugees.
"These people are looking for a better future," he says, "it is unacceptable to try to distinguish between those who run away from wars and those who are fleeing from hunger. And is unacceptable to think of bringing them back to their home, where they risk death and persecution for having tried to escape."
Many of the refugees have recounted witnessing the Libyan Coast Guard work hand-in-hand with the traffickers, Jacob warned.
"Giving money to Libyan institutions is a big mistake," he says. "Governments should listen to migrants, instead of knocking them out. "