Interview. We spoke with Giorgia Linardi, spokesperson for the Sea Watch organization, which has come under attack by Italy’s far right Interior Minister. Survivors stranded on the NGO’s rescue vessel, including children, have endured incredible trauma.

Sea Watch: Europe’s refugee policies are a ‘total failure’

Before being stranded aboard the Sea Watch 3, the migrants suffered terribly in Libya. Here’s just one of their stories: “One of the survivors recounted being forced to bury dead bodies to prepare the detention center for the visit of outside operators, in order to make it more presentable,” said the NGO’s spokeswoman, Giorgia Linardi.

“Even the youngest one, only 12 years old, was imprisoned without a valid reason,” Linardi told us. “One of them was sold as a slave to a government official and worked as a servant in order to buy his freedom and get a place on a raft.” Every time the survivors were brought back to Libya, they were imprisoned again: “If they survive, they are again forced to go out to sea, only to be brought back, abused and tortured to get ransom money. Until they perish.”

Ms. Linardi, you have collected many horror stories. These are people who should receive international protection, aren’t they?

Sending them back to Libya would certainly constitute an indiscriminate collective rejection, a crime for which Italy has already been condemned. Verifying whether they are persons eligible for protection as refugees is not our responsibility. However, under the Geneva Convention, anyone on board the ship who is from Libya would qualify.

Regarding the others, it is up to the authorities after landing to decide whether the conditions are met for subsidiary protection, or for what used to be humanitarian protection before Salvini. The testimonies we have collected tell of abuses, harassment and rights violations—horrible experiences. One person recounted how a relative was killed right in front of him, struck with a Kalashnikov while were in detention.

We do not want to pin them in the role of victims, but rather to give an accurate picture of the complexities and the atrocities involved in what they experienced. They are survivors. They need to be welcomed and protected—and after they are on solid ground, the level of legal protection can be determined. To us, they are victims of shipwrecks. They cannot be left at sea to die. And they cannot be returned to Libya, a country currently at war, from which it’s a miracle that they even came out alive.

Europe and the UN both say that Libya is not a safe haven. Is there a conflict between the Italian rules and international law?

International law is clear, and so is the current context. Libya is at war. This is a fact that is internationally recognized. This is also recognized at the national level in Italy, as evidenced by the report for Italians traveling in Libya put out by the Foreign Ministry, as well as the statements of the Interior Minister himself from a couple of weeks ago. Now, Salvini is saying only that “[t]here was an indication from the Tripoli Coordination Center that they should go to Libya.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Conte says that the Libyans “have already carried out a lot of operations.”

The Italian government is being careful not to say that Libya is a safe haven, but it is de facto pressuring the Sea Watch 3 to go there, seizing on the fact that there are newborns on board to argue that they should be quickly taken to Tripoli, while they’re giving the impression that we’re keeping them on board by force. These are dishonest statements. The government is taking a very dangerous position, from the point of view of the Constitution and of international relations, according to which it is acceptable to hand over the shipwrecked and survivors to a country at war. Such a position must horrify any international agency and organization.

This is the first rescue operation in which the Italian Coast Guard is submitting to coordination from Tripoli and offering it as the destination port. It is also the first rescue operation that exposes the farce that is the “Libyan Coast Guard,” responsible for a search and rescue area which is obviously managed with Italian assistance and interference—no matter how competent they may be, they do not have any safe port in their own country.

A number of German cities have signaled their readiness to receive the survivors. Macron is talking about fast landing and Europe-wide distribution. Is Italy the spanner in the works?

Although this is not among Sea Watch’s responsibilities, we have tried to promote a Europe-wide mechanism for redistribution, in constant dialogue with the EU Parliament and with German cities in particular. Sea Watch has contributed to the emergence of the “Un ponte sul mare” (“A bridge over the sea”) network, which consists of 50 German cities.

On Friday, there was a conference in Berlin of the cities which have expressed solidarity: the mayor of Rottenburg said his city was ready to host the 53 people rescued on Wednesday. Furthermore, a network of solidarity consisting of 12 German cities was also created, who have put out a common appeal and are also available to accommodate the survivors. We have also tried to start a dialogue between the Italian and the German government—there is definitely a part of Europe showing that it can be done.

What is unacceptable is that the landing of the shipwreck survivors depends on ad hoc arrangements every time, and that NGOs have to be engaged in finding solutions. This shows the total failure of European policies with respect to a phenomenon which is structural. This failure has resulted in unrelenting persecution against NGOs. This summer, there will be plenty of people in distress at sea, and they will be left to die for no other reason than to avoid taking responsibility for external border management.

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