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"Mediterranea is saving humans"

May 29, 2019
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Europe, #human rights, #Italy, #migration, #Mediterranean Sea, #Mare Jonio, #refugees
by:Federica Tedeschi
Six people died each day in 2018, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, according to a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report published in January.

The Mare Jonio ship is currently on its sixth mission observing, documenting and informing people on what is happening across the Mediterranean. It is in the Search and Rescue (SAR) Area off Libya, the Mediterranea Saving Humans (Mediterranea) website reads.

Mediterranea ‘is a platform of different initiatives of civil society’ whose ultimate objective is to intervene and save the lives of refugees crossing the sea by boat, if circumstances so require. The initiative took place after the NGOs had been forced to leave the central Mediterranean sea because they were criminalised ‘by political rhetoric’. They were criminalised despite no enquiry ever coming to a conviction.

‘This is a dream turned into reality thanks to the work of a group of friends from different associations and groups,’ philosopher of law Alessandra Sciurba explained. She spoke with FairPlanet, talking about the press conference in which Mediterranea was launched last October.

‘Mediterranea’s ship Mare Jonio, which flies the Italian flag, departed for its first mission on the 4th October 2018 and among the promoters there were social enterprise Moltivolti from Palermo, the cultural association ARCI, NGO Sea-Watch, the online magazine I Diavoli from Milan and the Ya Basta Association from Bologna’, she added.

Palermitan Ms Sciurba, who is Mediterranea’s legal team coordinator, as well as one of the promoters, highlighted the embarrassment of living in a society where migrants die at sea, while many of those who are safe on land do not seem to care about such atrocities. This was the spur to create a safe space to defend the law and human rights.

‘In 2012 all European governments closed legal entry channels, obliging migrants to risk their lives in the Mediterranean. We decided to monitor activities in the middle of the sea not just to save migrants but to save ourselves, as we are really worried about what is going on in Italy and in Europe at the moment’, she stressed, referring to the far-right movements currently making gains across Europe.

Mediterranea’s legal team coordinator further explained when the problem started: ‘All the (Italian) initiatives against immigration began with the previous government in 2017. It was the Democratic party to initiate the criminalisation of the NGOs and to sign the Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding*, which marks an escalation in the violation of human rights within the Mediterranean Sea. The present government has been following those policies’.

In March the Viminale (used in place of the Prime Minister & the Ministry of Interior, being Viminale the palace where they both seat in Rome) accused Mediterranea of aiding illegal immigration and there is currently an investigation on the maritime crew, who has made an aggravated defamation accusation against Viminale as a result.

The accusations against Viminale followed the SAR event on March 18, where Mediterranea was the only ship in the same maritime zone as a rubber boat in danger; at that time, they were 42 miles off the Libyan coast and the crew acted according to the international and Italian maritime law: they brought the 49 migrants to the nearest place of safety, which in that instance was Lampedusa.

‘Mediterranea always obeys constitutional and international laws and Libya has never been a place of safety’, stressed Ms Sciurba.

On April 16 Italian interior minister Mr Salvini issued the third directive in a month reiterating that Italian waters can be crossed only by 'those with the right to do so'. He also raised the terrorism alarm among migrants, talking of ‘inappropriate pressure and interference’. 

Mediterranea’s team decided not to let those accusations interfere with their mission, as Alessandra Sciurba explained:

‘If the Italian government really wants to fight against trafficking and terrorism to guarantee a safe and secure environment, the only way is to set legal entry channels for migrants.

‘All accuses are political propaganda, as the terrorists don’t travel on rubber boats that are likely to sink. They have their own ways of crossing borders and the government knows that’.

The ongoing investigation is on their captain and head of mission, and the crew believes it might be a way to shed light on the truth.

‘This is a possibility to demonstrate that it wasn’t us to violate the law. We have asked for access to all records of communication occurred among institutions in regard to the SAR event and found out that the Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre played a strong role. Communication between Rome and Tripoli happened solely through Italian representatives and we have made that public. We have also asked the Procura of Agrigento (the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Agrigento) to investigate the case and plan to follow the same procedure in regard to other similar cases occurred in the last two years in the Mediterranean’, she pointed out.

After FairPlanet interviewed Alessandra Sciurba at the beginning of May, further developments in immigration policy in the Mediterranean Sea followed.

Mr Salvini announced the 12-article Decreto Sicurezza bis, a decree meant to drastically limit any actions aimed at supporting the migrants; one of the articles even modifies the Italian Navigation Code.  Within days the United Nations (UN) wrote a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking to withdraw the approval process of a Decree defined ‘a menace to the rights of immigrants’.  As a result, the sanctions imposed on the immigrants landing in Italy have been lifted but negotiations are still ongoing.

Mediterranea’s crew is proud to have saved a further 30 people in May and to have reported a number of human rights infringements at sea.

‘Our journalists on board report any violations on real-time; there have been cases of boats sinking and/or people drowning. The fact that we had raised the alarm, has forced the Italian Coast Guard or Maltese Coast Guard to intervene on many occasions. And we think that it would not have happened without us’, she stressed.

The maritime crew is made up of 11 people on Mare Jonio, plus 12 to 13 people on the other vessel, usually a sailboat, which they hire to support the ship’s activity: among them doctors and journalists, with a priest joining this last mission. Whenever the boat is not crossing the sea to save humans/report wrongdoings, it can be found docked at ports in Sicily.

What about the cost of such an ambitious non-governmental project? Mediterranea has been receiving donations from thousands of people and the plan became a reality thanks to a loan from cooperative bank Banca Etica, which allowed promoters to buy Mare Jonio and start the mission. The same bank also supports the crowdfunding activity as well as ‘the economic part of the operation’.

‘Everybody can become Mediterranea anytime and support our missions not just at sea, but also on land. Our platform has created a European network of solidarity, which is offering an alternative to the xenophobic and nationalist ways of crossing Europe. It is a network made by associations, churches, major NGOs internationally and European cities of hospitality’, the platform’s team coordinator highlighted.

Thinking about the future, she said: ‘I believe this story will be told one day and people will have to explain to their children about a war in Libya and an Italian government which didn't really worry about saving people; instead they wanted to prevent the civil society from giving these people a safe harbour.’

* This article reports facts as of 20 May 2019

*The Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding: On 2 February 2017 a Memorandum of Understanding on development cooperation, illegal immigration, human trafficking, fuel smuggling and reinforcement of border security was signed between the Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni and Fayez al-Serraj, Head of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord.

*MayDay is an initiative dedicated to those who believe in a world without barriers or borders: a 12-hour concert to support humanitarian initiatives, organised by the Mediterranean Antirazzista Palermo and Mediterranea Saving Humans associations. It took place on May 25 in Palermo, Sicily.

Article written by:
Federica Tedeschi
Embed from Getty Images
Mediterranea ‘is a platform of different initiatives of civil society’ whose ultimate objective is to intervene and save the lives of refugees crossing the sea by boat.
Embed from Getty Images
‘This is a dream turned into reality thanks to the work of a group of friends from different associations and groups.’
Embed from Getty Images
‘Mediterranea’s ship Mare Jonio, which flights the Italian flag, departed for its first mission on the 4th October 2018.
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