CATANIA, Sicily - NGOs are split over a new code of conduct on the rescue of migrants making the perilous sea journey from Libya to Europe.
Three aid groups including Save the Children signed up to the new rules on Monday but five others refused to agree to the terms set down by the Italian government.
Sticking points in negotiations have included the possibility of allowing armed police on board rescue ships and the prohibiting of transferring migrants from one vessel to another, something the groups say is necessary when operating at sea in boats with limited capacity.
SOS Mediterranee, which did not sign up, has instead proposed three amendments to the code of conduct including the ability to continue the transfer of migrants from ship to ship and clarification over the role of armed police.
In a statement the group said:
SOS Mediterranee requests that these should not be permanently present on board, that they do not wear arms as this would stand in sharp contrast with the humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence.
Moreover, SOS Mediterranee requests that judicial police officers do not interfere with the humanitarian mission and principles of SOS Mediterranee.
We consider it crucial to provide a full recuperation period of minimum 24 hours after the rescue to all rescued persons on board, to allow them to get the urgent care they need.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) also refused to sign, objecting most strongly to a requirement that aid boats must take migrants to a safe port themselves.
In a letter to Interior Minister Marco Minniti, MSF Italy’s director Gabriele Eminente, wrote: “Our vessels are often overwhelmed by the high number of (migrant) boats ... and life and death at sea is a question of minutes.”
But Save The Children gave the new rules its backing, stating it already complied with most of the points raised.
Kevin Watkins, Save the Children CEO, added in a statement: “We have been assured that signing will not compromise Save the Children’s international safety and security policy.
“We strongly feel that there is an urgent and continuing humanitarian need and that our role is to stop vulnerable children from drowning.
“Since starting our search and rescue operations, we have helped save thousands of lives in the Mediterranean, where more than 2,200 people have already drowned this year.”
Italian officials fear the groups are unwittingly facilitating people smuggling from North Africa and in turn encouraging more to make the journey.
But with the flow of migrants unlikely to stop with the ongoing instability in Libya, aid agencies are stuck in a Catch-22 situation - if they continue rescues they may encourage more but if they stop, people will die.
It was feared that stalemate in the talks could have led to the suspension of rescue missions - Italy had previously threatened to shut its ports to NGOs that did not sign up.
But an Interior Ministry source told Reuters that in reality those groups would face more checks from Italian authorities.
Around 90,000 migrants have been brought to Italy this year on top of the half a million brought over the three previous years.
More than 2,200 others have died.
Italy’s Coastguard still operates missions but without NGO cooperation, rescue ability in the Mediterranean would be severely reduced.
Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms also agreed to the conditions, but Germany’s Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet, and France’s SOS Mediterranee did not.