By Hagen Kopp, Alarm Phone

What happened in the early morning of 26.07.2022 was far from new – in another call to Alarm Phone, the same people who provided their GPS position from their boat at sea during the night a few hours earlier, stated that they were now at Lampedusa. The people landed at the shore themselves without any support from the Italian Coast Guard or any civil rescue ship.

Aside from such a clear type of autonomous landing, much more often the Coast Guard or Guardia di Finanza intercept or accompany boats only a few nautical miles before the people reach the coast by themselves. According to official statistics, these interceptions or escorts might be counted as rescues by coast guards, but in fact, the practice appears more to represent final controls upon arrival. The perception of autonomous arrivals should then definitely include at least all boats which make it near to or into the territorial waters of Italy or Malta. Thus, about 12 to 15 nautical miles from landings and with the brunt of the arduous journey already behind them.

To expand on this, around the time of Salvini’s government, the Italian state seemed to have reframed its duty to assist distress cases by treating boats making the crossing not as SAR events, but as domestic ‘illegal immigration events’, and thus, responding only once the boats approached Italian territorial waters. This can in part be seen as a mechanism which Italy uses to shun its responsibility for going through the normal (and more long-winded) SAR event procedures such as providing an official place of safety. Moreover, this reframing of SAR events as ‘illegal immigration events’ has also been done for NGO rescues. A port of destination has more recently been provided for disembarkation rather than the conventional place of safety, and can be seen to represent a wider effort by Italy to change the normal discourse and rules of engagement when it comes to SAR in the context of migration.

In any case, the people on such boats often cross the sea for around 20 hours when departing from Tunisia, or 30 to even 40 hours when departing from Libya. Often, they desperately call for rescue for a long time directly to the coast guards and/or indirectly through Alarm Phone. But these SOS calls are ignored regularly. Non-assistance has long been the norm in the central Mediterranean sea.

We should pay appropriate attention to the fact that in the majority of sea crossing cases, people make it by themselves. On the 30th of July, 31 boats arrived in Lampedusa, on the 6th of August, there were 18. The majority of these boats departed from Tunisia, but several also from Libya.

During the last weeks, several larger boats with 300 to 500 people on board also made it to the coasts of Sicily or Calabria. Of course such big landings receive public attention. But nobody knows how often smaller boats, so-called “ghost boats”, arrive during the night without any attention.

All in all, it should never be forgotten that only a small part of sea arrivals from Tunisia and Libya are rescued by the civil fleet. We should acknowledge that a vast majority of refugees and migrants overcome the challenges and risks on their own strength. David.Lohmueller, Lampedusa port