Aid groups wary of proposed Italian rules on migrant rescues

Humanitarian organizations that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean are voicing concern over proposed rules to govern their operations that Italy has drafted amid accusations that some agencies are complicit with the Libyan-based traffickers.

Rescue boats could be refused port in Italy if they don't sign onto the proposed code of conduct, which the Italian government is to present to the nongovernmental organizations in the coming days.

Michele Trainiti, search and rescue coordinator of Doctors Without Borders, told The Associated Press on Friday that the draft rules seem to violate the aid groups' independence and neutrality and could hamper their ability to rescue migrants.

"The fact that some ships may be barred from disembarking in Italian ports worries us very much, because there are no clear alternative ports," Trainiti said. As an example he pointed to one recent rescue involving a newborn who was still attached to his mother via the umbilical cord. "Imagine if this baby had to travel some three or four days more to reach another country."

Under the proposed rules, boats would be barred from entering Libyan waters to rescue migrants, except in cases of imminent emergency. NGOs would have to let police investigating traffickers board their rescue vessels, and declare the sources of their financing. They would be barred from communicating by phone with smugglers or using light signals to indicate their locations.

Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said there were already existing guidelines governing sea rescues that she hoped could help inform the discussions between Italy and the NGOs in drafting a final set of rules.

"We hope that any code serves to improve coordination, and in no way reduces the capacity of rescues, because the capacity must be increased," she said.

European Union countries have backed Italy in drawing up the code of conduct as part of efforts to stem the flow of migrants leaving Libya bound for Europe. Italy is struggling under the influx of some 85,000 people in the first six months of the year, a 20 percent increase over last year.

According to the Interior Ministry, 34 percent of rescues have been performed by humanitarian organizations, 28 percent by the Italian Coast Guard, with other operations such as Frontex and mercantile ships, handle the rest.

Frontex first raised the alarm about the role NGOs were playing in the rescues, accusing them of encouraging smugglers by their mere presence so close to Libya's shore. A prominent prosecutor in Sicily followed up, suggesting that there had been contacts between smugglers and the NGOs.

Retired Adm. Fabio Caffio summarized their complaints by saying: "The NGOs have created de-facto humanitarian corridors and have challenged the Italian state and its sovereignty."

He said part of the problem was that many NGO ships use so-called flags of convenience, based in Belize or the Marshall Islands, making any kind of legal follow-up or certification difficult for Italian authorities.

"There's no problem from a commercial point of view, but problems can begin when ships with these flags are implicated in questions of public order," he said.

As part of Italy's efforts to reduce migrant flows, Interior Minister Marco Minnitti on Thursday visited Libya, meeting with local authorities and the head of the Libyan government in an effort to establish a pact to combat trafficking.


Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.