As a result of the high pressure on Italy with regards to the migration flow and the lack of solidarity from other Member States, pointing the finger at NGOs undertaking search and rescue (SAR) operations has become the new trend.
Targeting NGOs undertaking SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean route seems to have become the easiest way out from the impasse European leaders got themselves into. Portraying the work of those NGOs as the cause and not the consequence of failing EU responses is an easy solutions and allows to divert from the real problem, which is the incapacity to call Member States on their duties and shared responsibilities.
In response to France's decision to close the Ventimiglia border, the Italian government has proposed to impose a code of conduct on NGOs, undertaking search and rescue operations with the declared aim to avoid violations and cooptation with the smugglers. In a climate of rising social tensions and hate, this has been taken up by certain populistic public opinion as a way to accuse NGOs of acting against the law and contributing to human trafficking. The defamation campaign runs so high that a group of far-right organisations has considered their presence at sea needed to reestablish order and surveil the action of NGOs.
To think that there are humans ready to do whatever it takes to prevent other humans from saving a lives, is difficult to accept without an emotional reaction. But the current climate driven by emotions and alternative facts forces us to concentrate on facts.
Fact 1 is that the search and rescue NGOs do not operate in a legal vacuum. Their operations at sea are defined and regulated by international maritime conventions (such as the SAR Convention and the International Convention of Safety at Sea).
Fact 2 is that, if necessary, a code of conduct should be developed in full compliance with the existing international legal framework and in cooperation with NGOs. This is why we are dubious about the legitimacy and the adequacy of some of the restrictions imposed on NGOs in the draft code of conduct proposed by the Italian government, such as the denial to enter Libyan territorial water and the ban from using lights to signal their location to vessels at imminent risk of sinking. It is also important to mention that NGOs have already developed a voluntary code of conduct defining the humanitarian principle and defended rights.
Fact 3 is that Libya is far from being a stable country. The EU is investing greatly in the training of Libyan coastguards to fight smugglers and contain migration. At the same time Libyan coastguards are very fragmented and not entirely under the control of the Government of National Accord. Corruption, trafficking and severe violations of human rights of migrants in detention centers are facts that cannot be ignored.
The efforts to restrain NGOs active in the Mediterranean Sea and to increase the responsibility of the Libyan coastguards might be a tempting solution of "real politik" for the EU, especially regarding the many national struggles. But besides saving and protecting human beings, our role as civil society is to spur the EU to live up to its values and human rights framework. And this is what we’ll keep doing.