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Interview. We spoke with Nicola Stalla of SOS Mediterranean. On Friday, his NGO’s migrant rescue ship was ordered not to save the lives of migrants on a rubber raft. Instead, they waited nearby for four hours until a Libyan coast guard vessel returned them to Africa.

How Rome legitimizes Libya’s inhumane migrant policy

According to the International Organization for Migration, 3,033 migrants have died in the Mediterranean this year — ten per day.

Nicola Stalla is the coordinator of search and rescue operations for the SOS Méditerranée NGO, on board the Aquarius. This Monday he denounced the way the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome is managing the rescue operations. On Friday, the NGO’s ship was forced to do nothing for four hours while migrants on a rubber raft were risking their lives. These were then picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to the desert camps from which they had fled.

What happened during the rescue operations last week?

On Wednesday, we intercepted two rubber rafts and rescued the survivors, then transferred them to a Diciotti class vessel of the Italian Coast Guard. The next day we had a sort of preview of what would happen on Friday. The Center in Rome asked us to approach a vessel in distress in international waters, to the east of Tripoli. After reaching the position, they told us to remain on standby, as the rescue had been assigned to the Libyan Coast Guard, whose ship was not yet in position. Eventually we ended up doing the rescue, after the Libyans gave up on it. But on Friday we had to hold position for four hours, powerless to do anything, while the weather conditions were worsening and the rubber raft could have broken apart at any moment. In the end, the survivors were taken on board by a patrol ship from Tripoli and taken back to Libya.

You were in international waters. Why did you have to wait for the Libyans?

International conventions and maritime law require that you give aid, but in conditions of safety for the one who gives it. On Friday, we contacted the Libyan Coast Guard to report our position and offer help, but we were ordered not to intervene. It has happened in the past that situations would become very tense, with shots fired by the Libyans at NGO ships [e.g. what happened to Proactiva Open Arms in August], and also at units of the Italian Coast Guard and the German Navy, as it happened again this November.

Who decides who needs to intervene?

The Center in Rome is the one that notifies of the presence of a vessel in distress and calls for the nearest ship to intervene. Rescue operations usually take place off the coast of Libya, so the Tripoli Navy and Coast Guard are alerted, and sometimes they take charge of the operation and sometimes not. Coordination is a complex matter, that much is true, but Rome gave the Libyans resources and training and now it’s trying to give them legitimacy and room to act. It’s a political strategy. The NGOs and the civil or military units of all states have the obligation to rescue survivors and lead them to a safe harbor, but the Libyans are the only ones who don’t conduct search and rescue operations themselves, and refuse when asked.

What has changed with the agreements signed by minister Minniti?

The migrants are taken back to a territory so insecure that no country is maintaining an embassy there. Many tell us how they ended up in Libyan prisons, tortured and forced to pay to be able to resume their journey, then brought back by the Coast Guard and put through another round of the same, with more torture and a new cash payment, only to go out again and risk their lives at sea. Not only are they survivors of shipwrecks, but they are fleeing violence and rape. The presence in Libya of the IOM or UNHCR does not prevent all this from happening. In recent months, the situation has worsened to the point that now the Libyans themselves are trying to escape. There are also clashes between militias that are receiving supplies thanks to the European policies for the management of migrant flows, so it is a situation of danger everywhere. The prisons are even more overcrowded, and torture, extortion, violence and forced labor are on the rise.

What should be done right now?

Everything we do should be to safeguard lives and human rights both at sea and on land, on both sides of the Mediterranean. Instead, the goal is to create an unsurpassable border outside Fortress Europe.

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