Saving lives gets tougher for Med's charity boats

ABOARD THE MS AQUARIUS (AFP) - Shots fired in the air, verbal threats and ships stuck at sea: life has suddenly got tougher for the charity boats trying to stop migrants drowning off Libya.

Italy wants to keep tighter rein on NGOs helping the multinational search and rescue operation by making them sign up to a new code of conduct.

But the move, resisted by some organisations, has lead to confusion with boats getting contradictory instructions and the government apparently split over the handling of what is a tricky issue.

It was against this backdrop that the C-Star, a boat crewed by anti-immigration activists, sailed into waters off Libya at the weekend.

The C-Star has vowed to expose NGO 'collaboration' with people traffickers but it has encountered problems of its own after being blocked from docking in Tunisia for refuelling.

For the Aquarius, chartered by French humanitarian groups SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), nothing has really changed despite both organisations refusing to sign up to the new rules.

The code is aimed at ensuring greater transparency in the NGOs operations and tighter control of their movements by the Italian coastguard.

Most problematically, it requires the ships to allow an Italian police officer onboard during rescues, and forbids the transfer of rescued migrants onto other boats without the coastguard's express permission.

- Frustrated rescuers -

The code has been approved by the European Commission but a committee of the German parliament has questioned whether it is compatible with maritime law and its wide-reaching provisions on the duty of coming to the aid of ships in distress.

Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti had insisted there will be no cooperation with NGOs that don't sign the code.

But Transport Minister Graziano Delrio, the man in charge of the coastguard, has appeared more flexible.

"I have given instructions to the coastguard to mainly call upon those NGOs who seem the most cooperative... but if an NGO boat finds itself near people in need of saving, I'm obliged to call on them with lives at stake," Delrio told La Stampa.

"We've been called repeatedly over recent days by the coastguard coordination centre in Rome," said Nicola Stalla, rescue coordinator on the Aquarius.

On Sunday the coastguard sent the ship to the aid of a distressed dinghy but, by the time it arrived at the scene, a coastguard patrol boat was already there and the NGO vessel was asked to standby -- to the great frustration of its crew.

- Shots in the air -

The new line from the Italian authorities has also condemned the Golfo Azzurro, operated by Spain's Proactiva Open Arms, to sailing around in limbo after being denied docking rights in both Malta and Italy because of a row over where three rescued Libyans should be deposited.

The trio were rescued on orders from the Rome coordination centre in an area Malta's coastguard is supposed to oversee, Proactiva's Gerard Canals explained to AFP. By coincidence, he was in Rome Tuesday to sign the controversial code.

Proactiva's other boat, the Open Arms, meanwhile was the subject of attempted intimidation on Monday, when it was approached in international waters by a Libyan coastguard vessel which accused the organisation of aiding traffickers.

"They fired shots in the air and warned next time they would shoot at us," Canals said.

All the boats in the rescue theatre meanwhile have had far more time on their hands than usual because of a sudden and unexpected drop in the number of migrants leaving Libya -- the July total of just over 11,000 was less than half that registered in the same month last year.

"We don't know what is happening," said Flavio di Giacomo of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

"It is not down to the action of the Libyan coastguard," he said. "Something is happening in Libya, maybe the traffickers have changed strategy or there is a battle going on between networks."

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