Charities warns Italy's ban on NGO planes risks lives

AFP , Friday 10 May 2024

Rescue charities warned Thursday that Italy's new ban on using surveillance planes to spot migrant boats in distress in the Mediterranean could endanger lives.

Julia Schaefermeyer, Crew-Mitglied der SOS Mediterranee.
Julia Schaefermeyer, crew member of the SOS Mediterranee, along with some rescued migrants.


One lawyer questioned the legality of the order, while a campaigning group denounced it as "an act of cowardice and cynicism".

Italy's civil aviation authority ENAC has issued orders in the past week saying charities will have their planes seized if they carry out "search and rescue" activities from airports in Sicily.

It follows a crackdown by far-right premier Giorgia Meloni's government on charity rescue ships as Rome attempts to fulfil a pledge to curb arrivals, which numbered some 158,000 people last year.

Many people perish attempting to cross from North Africa to Europe. Nearly 2,500 migrants died in 2023 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, a 75% increase on the previous year, according to the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"This is definitely another attempt to criminalise search and rescue," Giulia Messmer, spokesperson for the German charity Sea Watch, told AFP.

Sea Watch has two planes, the Seabird 1 and 2. If they "are not able to fly anymore", the planes "cannot communicate spotted distress cases" to authorities and ships able to carry out rescues, she said.

ENAC says it is up to the coastguard, not charities, to perform search and rescue operations. The ban applies to the airports of Palermo and Trapani in Sicily, as well as the islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria.

'Risk of shipwrecks'

"Humanitarian planes are definitely an important source for us to understand where people are at risk of shipwrecks and at risk of drowning," said Julia Schaefermeyer from SOS Mediterranee, which runs a rescue ship.

"We get extremely little information from the authorities, and we really rely on the civilian aircrafts," she said.

The IOM told AFP that while it was "waiting to understand its actual implementation, we are concerned that this decision may hinder life-saving efforts".

Sea Watch argued that the planes not only played a vital role in spotting boats at risk of sinking, but also documented the behaviour of the Libyan coastguard, often accused of violence towards migrants.

Immigration lawyer Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo told AFP the order issued by ENAC was based on "a partial and contradictory reconstruction of national and international laws governing search and rescues".

It was a political move, "a warning, during the election campaign" for the European Elections, he said.

Sea Watch on Twitter also called the move "an act of cowardice and cynicism... for political propaganda".

ENAC answers to Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League party.

'Will continue flying'

Messmer, 28, said the Seabird 2 flew on Wednesday from Lampedusa despite the ban and the charity "plans to continue flying in the coming days".

There were no issues getting the necessary authorisation from the airport to take off and land, she said.

Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, was elected to office in 2022 promising to stop migrant boats arriving from North Africa.

The government has brought in a law obliging charity ships to stage only one rescue at a time and they are often assigned ports in Italy's distant north, making missions longer and more expensive.

Rome has also signed a controversial deal with Albania by which migrants from countries considered to be safe will be intercepted at sea and taken straight to Italian-run centres in Albania.

Critics say the deal is expensive and will prove ineffective because the two centres will only be able to hold a maximum of 3,000 people at a time, and asylum applications are notoriously slow.

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