Thursday night, an Italian coast guard patrol rescued almost four hundred people aboard a boat that had left Libya six days before and was lost for more than 36 hours off the coast of Lampedusa. Arriving in Lampedusa, migrants declared tragic deaths had occured from hunger and fatigue during the voyage and dozens of bodies were thrown over board.
The migrants first attempted to board a Cypriot tug boat, then an Italian helicopter made an unsucessful rescue effort. According the numerous reports, the NATO ship was only 27 miles from the ship in distress, while Italian coast guard patrols travelled 90 miles to rescue the migrants.
Italy informed they want to open an investigation to clarify why the migrants have been rescued by NATO, which also means, according to recent proposals of the Italian government, that migrants would have been returned to their port of departure. On August 2nd, Italian Senate approved a proposition that engages the Italian government to require Atlantic Alliance boats to block migrant ships in the Strait of Sicily and return them to African coasts. Yesterday, the president of the Northern League committee of the Italian Senate, Frederico Bricolo confrimed this posittion declaring to the press that it was urgent that NATO begin to, « block migrants leaving Libya et return them to the African coast in order to stem the number of deaths » along European coasts.
Italy ignores principles established in the Law of Sea. Any person in danger at sea must be rescued but must also be disembarked in a safe and secure location. The disembarkment of asylum seekers and refugees in territories where their lives or safety may be threatened is clearly prohibited. The need of protection and the principle of non-refoulement should have been taken into account both by NATO and Italian autorities.
On the contrary, failure to assist migrants in danger seems to be the rule in the strait of Sicily, where more than 2000 deaths occured since the beginning of 2011.
This new example demonstrates once more, if needed, that the obligation to provide assistance at sea will be respected only so long as migrants are sent back to the country from which they are fleeing. On July 11th of this year, a Spanish NATO vessel rescued over one hundred migrants, only to return them to the coast of Tunisia after not a single European nation would accept them.