BRUSSELS – European Union interior ministers on Friday weighed proposals to ease tensions between France and Italy over migrants arriving on their shores without authorization, including a possible crackdown on charity-run ships doing search and rescue work in the Mediterranean Sea.
In recent weeks, several hundred people hoping to enter Europe have been stranded at sea aboard aid ships while countries bicker over whether and where they should be allowed to disembark.
It comes during a year in which more than 90,000 migrants have so far arrived in Europe though the Mediterranean, chiefly from Libya and Tunisia — an increase of almost 50% over the same period in 2021. Almost 2,000 people have died or are missing at sea.
A diplomatic row erupted earlier this month when Italy maneuvered France into accepting a humanitarian rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, with 234 migrants aboard. The right-wing government in Rome had refused to grant it access to a port for weeks.
France retaliated by suspending its participation in an EU solidarity pact to accept around 3,000 people, in a process known as “relocation,” who had arrived this year in Italy, and sent officers to reinforce its southern border crossings and prevent migrants from entering.
“If Italy doesn’t take the boats, doesn’t accept the law of the sea, and the nearest safe port, there’s no reason that countries that do relocation, France and Germany, should be the same countries that accept the boats or the migrants directly from Africa or Asia,” French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, has tabled an action plan. Part of that plan involves the idea of imposing tighter rules on ships doing search and rescue work. Neither the EU nor any of its member countries actively search for migrants at sea unless they receive an emergency call.
The plan calls for the EU to throw its weight behind “discussions in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on the need for a specific framework and guidelines for vessels having a particular focus on search and rescue activities, particularly in view of developments in the European context.”
After the meeting, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said: “We need dialogue, and we need rules, and we need order.”
“Operations in the Mediterranean and elsewhere cannot operate under a Wild, Wild West situation, where everybody does anything and it’s OK,” Schinas told reporters in Brussels.
He said the commission would help the 27 member countries to come up with rules, principles and strategies to improve cooperation between those who rescue people at sea and the countries who must receive them.
The IMO, for its part, has expressed concern about the disembarkation row. It has recalled that, under international law, a search and rescue operation is not concluded until the survivors have been taken ashore to a place of safety.
To the dismay of charity groups, Italy has long impounded NGO ships that transport rescued migrants or tie their crew up in court cases to dissuade them. Greece has also tried to discourage humanitarian organizations from helping people trying to enter Europe without authorization.
Darmanin told reporters that “the NGOs that are in the Mediterranean are there to save people and obviously should not be, under any circumstances, in any kind of contact with any smuggling organization.”
Other EU countries oppose new rules that would make it impossible for NGO ships to save lives.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said that with so many lives at stake in the Mediterranean, his agency “appreciates the vital importance of rescue at sea by all actors, including NGO rescue vessels.”
The International Rescue Committee, a migrant aid group, called on the EU to mount its own “search and rescue operations, and work in coordination with NGOs to ensure that everyone rescued at sea is disembarked quickly and safely.”