Salvini: Italian Coast Guard Should Ignore Migrants in Distress

Italian coastguardsmen respond to migrants in distress off Libya (file image courtesy Marina Militare)

Published Jun 27, 2018 5:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

Italy's hard-line minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, has suggested that the Italian Coast Guard and Navy should ignore distress calls from maritime migrants off Libya. Instead, he proposed, SAR duties in international waters of the central Mediterranean should fall to the Libyan Coast Guard, which receives Italian assistance. 

SOLAS obligates masters to provide assistance to persons in distress, "regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found." However, the chapter in question does not apply to warships, naval auxiliaries and other government-owned vessels, and only encourages them to comply if possible. If Salvini's suggestion were implemented, the commanding officers of Italy's cutters and warships could be out of alignment with the rule, but might not be out of compliance. 

The proposal came after Salvini's return from a trip to Libya, where he discussed the creation of migrant processing centers with officials of the Libyan Government of National Accord, one of two factions that control Libya's coastline. 

In a meeting with GNA interior minister Abdulsalam Ashour and vice president Ahmed Maiteeq, Salvini proposed that new reception centers should be set up to process migrants arriving from Sub-Saharan Africa, but not within Libya's borders. The GNA is opposed to the creation of new large-scale facilities for migrants on Libyan territory, and Salvini suggested instead that centers should be set up in Sudan, Chad, Niger and Mali. About 60 percent of migrants transiting Libya are from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The GNA is the internationally-recognized government of Libya, and controls the western coast of the country from Zawiya to Sirte; the competing government of Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army controls the eastern half from Ras Lanuf to Tobruk (with exceptions). Most maritime migrants transiting Libya pass through GNA-controlled areas on their way to the Mediterranean.