Save the Children is the third NGO to suspend its migrant ferrying operations in the Mediterranean after Tripoli confirmed it would be blocking its waters to foreign ‘Search and Rescue’ (SAR) boats.
The international NGO announced Sunday that its ship, the Vos Hestia, would remain on “standby” whilst it suspends operations along the Central Mediterranean migrant route between North Africa and Italy.
Citing “safety and security assurances”, Save the Children joins the German Sea-Eye and French Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) who ceased ferrying migrants to Europe over the weekend.
Italy has praised Libya’s decision to bar foreign ships from her waters which resulted in the NGOs pulling back operations.
A source from within Italy’s interior ministry disclosed to La Stampa that this ‘hard line’ approach is regarded as an effective defence against illegal migration: “Human trafficking and landings have dropped, monitoring of the Libyan Coast Guard is working well, thanks to the 10 patrol boats sent by us.”
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano told the newspaper: “This signifies that balance is being restored in the Mediterranean.”
Defending criticism from NGOs that the Italian government is an ‘accomplice’ to a block on the free flow of migrants from Africa, the foreign minister said: “Those waters belong to no one else but Libya.”
Following the toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi as a result of the ‘Arab Spring‘ in 2011, a destabilised Libya became one of three major departure points for illegal migration in the Mediterranean with smugglers trafficking mostly young men from the Middle East and Africa to Europe.
EU Border Agency (Frontex) described NGOs in the Mediterranean as acting “like taxis” for illegal migrants. Several accusations followed of direct collusion between NGOs and people smugglers with Italian authorities impounding the ship Iuventa after photographic evidence appeared to show it accepting transfers of Europe-bound migrants from smuggler boats.
On Sunday, one lone NGO vessel, the Aquarius, operated by the SOS Mediterranée, was patrolling off the coast of Libya with volunteers expressing concern that they had not seen a migrant or smuggler boat for a week.
“What we’re seeing at sea is that it seems fewer small boats are leaving Libya, and those that do leave are intercepted by the Libyan coastguards,” said one volunteer.
“SOS MEDITERRANEE will remain in the Search-and-Rescue zone, saving boats in distress and preventing people from being forcefully returned to Libya,” the NGO stated, saying that if migrants are returned to Libya, they will be subject to “arbitrary detention and other forms of human rights’ abuses”.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 111,000 migrants have entered the European Union via Mediterranean routes this year.