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UNICEF Thanks Italy’s Rescue of Migrants, but Warns Rome on its New NGO Code of Conduct

The UN reacts on Italian policymakers opting to limit NGO rescue vessels from saving refugees and migrants

About 275 refugees and migrants waiting to disembark from a tug boat in the Port of Pozzalo, Italy, after being rescued a few days earlier. (Photo: UNHCR/ F. Malavolta)

A statement from UNICEF stated that the Italian government's newly proposed code of conduct would prevent NGO vessels from entering Libyan waters to complete rescues and bar them from making phone calls or firing flares to signal their location to migrant boats in distress: "Restrictions on sea rescues or sending refugee children back to Libya are not solutions."

More than 90,000 Libyan refugees and migrants have crossed the blues of the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum at ports entering the southern tip of Italy so far this year. This is 70,000 more arrivals than all other European Union countries in the Mediterranean combined. Between January and June of 2017, UNICEF-supported teams on rescue boats identified 2,343 children at risk and provided nearly 1,000 women and children with hygiene items and other basic supplies on the boats.

Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Justin Forsyth, said, “since the start of the migration crisis, Italy has made incredible efforts to save refugees and migrants stranded at sea and provide support to those who have reached its shores.” “Italy continues to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden for the care and support of refugees and migrants across the EU,” continued Forsyth. “But restrictions on sea rescues or sending refugee children back to Libya are not solutions. The rest of the EU and international community more broadly must step up to help Italy, by supporting rescue missions, allowing boats to disembark and doing the right thing for children uprooted.”   

Italian policymakers are overwhelmed at the spike of displaced people in Italy and recently proposed a new “code of conduct” that would crack down on the trafficking and smuggling of refugees and migrants into the country, but limits NGO rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The implementation of this new code can inadvertently hinder rescue missions and cause the deaths of refugees and migrants coming from the coast of north Africa.

During the daily UN noon briefing, La Voce asked Deputy Spokesperson for the UN Secretary General, Farhan Haq, if there was any reaction from the SG about the new Italian code. He replied, “We’ll just let what UNICEF said speak for itself.”

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According to the UNICEF report, the proposed code would prevent NGO vessels from entering Libyan waters to conduct rescues and bar them from making phone calls or firing flares to signal their location to migrant boats in distress. Perhaps the most distressing part of the code is its inclusion of a plan where children are at greater risk of being returned to Libya without any protection measures in place, exposing them to the very deprivations, harm and grave violations that caused them to flee in the first place.

At the recent G20 and G7 summits, UNICEF urged governments to take action to protect child refugees and migrant as part of its six-point plan of Action for Children Uprooted, which calls for the protection of every child uprooted by war, violence and poverty. 

According to UNHCR, there has been a 20% increase of refugees and migrants to Italy over the same period. “With this frequency and these numbers we can easily tell that, soon enough, we won’t be able to handle it any longer,” said Nicola Latorre, the chairman of the defense committee of the Italian Senate. “We need to act now, and what can immediately be done is to allow vessels that are not flying the Italian flag to carry those migrants to their respective countries.”

The influx has strained Italian infrastructure – and the goodwill of Italian voters. Many Italian citizens, who were once relatively friendly to migrants, now reject many politicians that appear ‘soft’ on immigration in local elections. Anti-immigration hard-liners are much more successful, putting pressure on the country’s ruling center-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico PD), to ease the crisis. 

Before the UN G20 Summit, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni issued a statement saying, “the message is that of a country that is not breaking the rules, but is coming under pressure and is asking for a concrete contribution from its European counterparts.”  According to Italy’s La Stampa newspaper, Gentiloni also said that, “the migrant influx is not stopping. Unless you help us, the danger is that the populists will win the next general election in Italy.” Gentiloni has special ammunition in his effort to convince other European leaders to ease pressure on Italy — the specter that eurosceptic populist parties could seize power in a national election taking place in the spring of 2018. The ruling party has been slipping in opinion polls.

However, to rebut Prime Minister Gentiloni’s statement that Italy is “not breaking the rules,” the Italian government signed a deal with the Libyan government to turn away some refugees wanting to enter Italy. When La Voce asked the SG if Italy was violating international law by refusing to accept refugees coming from a country that cannot sustain itself socio-economically, SG Guterres responded saying, yes, if the agreement is made with a country like Libya that is not at this time able to accept and respect the rights of refugees, then the state asks that the agreement does not respect international law.”

According to UNHCR data, more than 2,000 people have died so far trying to cross the Mediterranean only in the first months of 2017. With the rise of nationalistic and anti-immigration sentiment from Italians fed up with little regional and global support, something has to give in order to ensure the safety of the growing number of refugees and migrants, especially displaced children, who only wish to seek asylum in Europe. It will be the United Nations’ responsibility  to find the balance between the Italian political stability and the humanitarian and international law obligations.

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