Aid workers have accused the EU of “wilfully letting people drown in the Mediterranean” as they face being forced to suspend rescue missions for refugees attempting the perilous crossing from Libya.
Italy is attempting to impose a code of conduct on NGOs operating ships in the search and rescue zone off the coast of Libya, the main launching point for refugees trying to reach Europe on smugglers’ boats.
Humanitarian groups have argued the code will affect their work by banning the transfer of refugees to larger ships, which allows vessels to continue rescues, and forcing them to allow police officers on board.
A revised code of conduct is expected to be presented by the Italian interior ministry on Monday, following meetings between officials and NGOs.
The 11-point plan, which has been approved by the European Commission and border agency Frontex, could see any groups refusing to sign up denied access to Italian ports or forbidden from carrying out rescues.
They are currently deployed by officials at Rome’s Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC) and charities fear any move to restrict their operations, leaving just Italian coastguard and naval ships, will dramatically reduce rescue capacity during peak season.
German charity Sea-Watch deployed a second rescue vessel in response to the plans, which it called a “desperate reaction” by a country abandoned on the frontline of the refugee crisis by its European allies.
“The EU is wilfully letting people drown in the Mediterranean by refusing to create a legal means of safe passage and failing to even provide adequate resources for maritime rescue,” said CEO Axel Grafmanns.
“The NGOs are currently bearing the brunt of the humanitarian crisis and they are being left alone.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has staff on two rescue ships, said it was engaging with Italian authorities in an “open and constructive way” over the proposed code but had serious concerns over several clauses.
“MSF employees are humanitarian workers, not police officers, and that for reasons of independence they will do what is strictly requested by the law but nothing more so as to protect our independence and neutrality,” a spokesperson said.
The charity opposed a commitment compelling vessels to notify multiple states if they leave designated search and rescue zones, which it said could cause deaths by delaying rescues, and said the ability to transfer refugees to larger ships and continue operations was “crucial to saving lives”.
“The inefficient back and forth of all rescue ships to disembarkation points will consequently lead to a decrease in the presence of rescue vessels,” a MSF spokesperson said.
Close to 94,000 people have been brought to safety in Italy so far this year, according to Italy’s interior ministry, an increase of over five percent compared to the same period last year.
At the same time over 2,370 people have died attempting the notorious crossing, the UN refugee agency said.
The EU announced €46m (£41m) extra funding for Italy on Friday, to help it protect Libya’s northern and southern borders and stop the flow of sub-Sahran African refugees through the country.