Tech & Rights

New Code of Conduct Aims to Control Life-Saving NGOs in the Mediterranean

A code of conduct for NGOs working in the Mediterranean has been approved by European representatives. If NGOs fail to comply with all the rules in the code, their boats could be denied entry to Italian ports.

by Ilaria Giacomi

A draft proposal of a Code of Conduct for NGOs involved in search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean has been presented to European authorities and approved by the European Commission and EU border agency Frontex as a way to govern the presence and role of such organizations.

The code will be a list of rules to be closely observed by undersigning NGOs, in order for them to continue working in the Mediterranean, and as a safeguard to both migrants and operators. Organizations that will not sign the code or will fail to observe its prescriptions could be denied access to Italian ports.

Rules of the Code

  • It is absolutely forbidden for NGOs to enter Libyan waters. The first rule follows from the allegations lodged against some NGOs of trespassing into national waters; from now on, an NGO ship will be allowed to enter Libyan waters only in the presence of an evident situation of great danger to human lives.
  • NGOs must not turn off transponders on their boats.
  • NGOs must not make telephone calls or use light-signaling devices in order to communicate with migrants' boats and facilitate traffickers in making boats leaving the shores.
  • NGOs must not transport rescued people on other Italian or international boats, unless it is required by an evident emergency situation. As a general rule, NGOs that enacted the rescue activities need to carry migrants to the closest port themselves, thus completing their operations.
  • NGOs must not hinder search and rescue operations by the Libyan coastguard, as it is their duty and responsibility to control national waters.
  • NGOs must accept and host on their boats a judicial police agent, who is in charge of investigating human trafficking.
  • NGOs must declare their sources of funding for the sake of transparency.
  • NGOs must communicate the sighting of endangered migrants' boats and the related operations they are going to carry out to the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center of their home countries, in order for them to be informed of NGOs activities and be accountable in terms of maritime security.
  • NGOs must hold a certificate qualifying them as suitable for search and rescue activities. Such certifications will be provided by recognized organizations and national institutions.
  • NGOs must cooperate with the Public Security Authority of the port where they are heading to, by providing documents related to the sanitary situation of migrants onboard and the rescue operation performed, namely the "sanitary incident report" and the "maritime incident report."
  • NGOs must communicate to the Police Authority every piece of information or evidence which can be of any interest in the development of potential investigations.

NGOs react

Despite the fact that such a code obtained the endorsement of several representatives of European countries because it is seen as a practical solution against the much-feared pull factor - considering NGOs responsible of increasing migration flows because of their bare presence in the Mediterranean - some organizations deeply disagree with the code's contents, which would eventually impede rescue operations and become a threat to migrants' lives.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint statement in which they claimed that preventing NGOs from getting closer to Libyan waters, the most dangerous area for those who try to reach Europe, can cause thousands of deaths.

A code of conduct for NGOs committed to search and rescue activities ought to make such activities more effective, but that is not the case with the code presented to EU authorities.

On the contrary, the rights groups say, this code could "hinder the operations and delay landings in safe ports within a reasonable amount of time, thus violating the obligations States and Captains have to respect according to international maritime law."
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