Cowed Aid Agencies Cease Migrant Rescues in the Mediterranean

The Aquarius arrives at Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, on Oct. 13, 2017.

The Aquarius arrives at Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, on Oct. 13, 2017.


Fucarini/Fotogramma/Ropi/Zuma Press

ROME—Nongovernmental organizations that have shouldered a large part of the operations to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean have ceased all such activity, amid a sharp fall in seaborne arrivals and a crackdown by the Italian government on their search-and-rescue work.

Late Thursday, Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, a migrant aid group, said they would withdraw their last, jointly operated, boat from the Mediterranean, blaming harsh treatment from the Italian government over the last 18 months.

The boat, called the Aquarius, helped rescue thousands of mostly African migrants stranded in the Mediterranean as they attempted to cross from Libya to Italy. It has been at the center of a bitter political fight with the new Italian government, which is working to curtail aid groups operating in the sea.

Starting two years ago, a number of NGOs chartered boats to launch search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, arguing that the inadequate response of European coast guard and navy vessels to migrants’ distress calls was causing hundreds to drown. About 750,000 seaborne migrants have arrived on Italian shores since 2011.

Last year, the previous, center-left Italian government required NGO boats to disembark migrants on land, rather than transferring them to other ships. The NGOs typically loaded the migrants onto other ships that then traveled hundreds of miles to bring them to land in Italy, thus allowing aid agencies’s boats to remain closer to Libya and rescue more migrants.

The government also forced the boats to allow armed police to board to gather evidence for people-smuggling investigations. Several groups refused and halted their activities.

Since its formation in June, a new Italian government supported by the antiestablishment 5 Star Movement and the nativist League stepped up the campaign against the NGO boats, which are accused of providing a pull factor encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

Last summer, Matteo Salvini, interior minister and head of the League, ordered Italian ports to refuse docking rights to the Aquarius and other NGO rescue boats.

At one point, after being denied permission to dock in Italy, the Aquarius sailed for days in search of a country that would allow it, finally gaining permission from Spain.

In November, Italian prosecutors ordered the seizure of the boat, alleging it had illegally disposed of some of its waste. The aid groups denied the allegations.

As a result of the prosecutors’ order and the government’s campaign, the Aquarius has been forced to remain in port in France over the last two months, due to “a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign backed by several European states,” SOS Méditerranée said in a statement.

“Eighteen months of criminalization, delegitimization and defamation of search and rescue NGOs has led to new threats to lifesaving missions at sea,” the group added.

The number of arrivals has dropped drastically since summer 2017, after a concerted push by the previous government to help the Libyan Coast Guard beef up controls. Rome also gained support from Libyan tribes to cut off help for people smugglers.

So far this year, 23,000 seaborne migrants have reached Italy, compared with 117,000 over the same period of 2017.

“Fewer departures, fewer arrivals, fewer dead. It’s good this way,” said Mr. Salvini, commenting on the decision to end the Aquarius’s operations.

Write to Giovanni Legorano at