Rescue is a right and a duty, not a crime! Stop attacks against CSOs and people on the move


8 June 2023

30+ civil society organisations (CSOs) raise their concerns and address their recommendations to the European Union and its Member States ahead of the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting today and tomorrow on the external dimension of migration and the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.  

On 2 and 3 June 2023, EuroMed Rights gathered 30+ CSOs from across the Euro-Mediterranean region working on migration and asylum in a 2-day seminar and a series of workshops on the right to rescue in the Mediterranean and on the increased criminalisation and backlashes against CSOs and people on the move in Europe and the MENA region.

Since many years now, CSOs and migrants and refugees themselves have been witnessing a fierce escalation in attacks against them and their work, with law, policies and practices infringing on their rights, including with harsh sentences and deprivation of liberty. Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs in Italy, Greece, Malta and the Central Mediterranean have been criminalized and prevented from saving lives at sea, filling the void left by States who don’t respect their international obligations and responsibility.  

There is a real need to completely change the current migration and asylum policies and implement truly human rights-based migration and asylum policies. It is time to structurally increase legal and safe pathways for protection, by increasing visas, resettlement and humanitarian corridors; by expanding the criteria and simplifying the procedures for family reunifications, as well as by respecting the right to freedom of movement and not impeding it by all possible means, containing migration and performing unlawful pushbacks. It is important to set up an EU-wide Search and Rescue operation in order to reduce the number of deaths and disappearances at sea.

Criminalisation of Search and Rescue & crackdown on NGOs  

For example, in its Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean presented in November 2022, the European Commission advises to increase the role of Frontex in SAR activities in the Central Mediterranean (point 15), despite the infamous role of Frontex in facilitating interceptions and pullbacks to Libya by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard using aircraft and drones. The European Commission also suggested referring to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to issue guidelines for SAR vessels in the Central Mediterranean (point 17), at the risk of further criminalizing SAR NGO vessels. In a more recent "Draft Roadmap towards a 'European Framework for Operational Cooperation on Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea'", leaked by StateWatch, the European Commission aims at "standardisation/convergence of registration and certification rules on private vessels carrying out SAR as their predominant activity." This could be further used to hamper the actions of SAR organisations.

Examples from Italy, Greece & Cyprus

“The last decree presented by the current Italian Minister of the Interior Piantedosi is only the last of a long series of legal and administrative intervention criminalising the work of SAR NGOs”, said Gaia Pietravalle from ARCI. In Italy, criminalisation started with the closure of Mare Nostum operation in 2014, followed by a smear campaign against SAR actors accused of acting as smugglers and constituting a pull factor for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean. The Piantedosi decree is a synthesis of all the previous approaches that had been promoted by his predecessors Salvini and Lamorgese. It aims to strengthen the power of the Interior Ministry, impose specific codes of conduct on NGOs, threaten them with exaggerated sanction mechanisms, and de facto hinder SAR operations by prohibiting NGOs from carrying out more than one rescue at once.

Since 2020, Greece has witnessed a skyrocketing increase in the number of pushbacks and criminalised NGOs. “We had several cases of smear campaigns and defamatory public narratives promoted by the media and high-level government representatives who have depicted those denouncing pushbacks as national traitors, supporters of Turkey, smugglers and facilitators of irregular entry”, stated Spyros Vlad Oikonomou from the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR).

Cyprus has witnessed an escalation of aggression against NGOs acting in solidarity and support to migrants since 2019. For example, “KISA has been accused of being affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and of collaborating with Turkey. KISA is now de-registered and is thereby considered by the authorities as an organisation without an active legal status in the country. This means, for instance, that we have no more legal basis to apply for funding”, declared Doros Polykarpou from KISA.

Deadly policies of non-assistance at sea

Examples of States’ non-assistance at sea happen every day in the Mediterranean. The fact that no one intervenes is an infringement of the right to life, and of maritime law, which obliges any State or any ship, to rescue any person in distress regardless of their legal status and to bring them to a safe port. 

“In the last year, more than 20,000 people in distress were ignored by Maltese authorities. Non-assistance at sea involves both a failure to conduct SAR operations and active obstruction of rescue by Maltese authorities through different means, such as discouraging rescue by commercial vessels, refusal to engage with SAR actors, and criminalisation of SAR actors in Malta. Lastly, Malta actively cooperates with the Libyan coast guard to facilitate pushbacks to Libya”, stated Ċetta Mainwaring from the University of Edinburgh.

Externalisation policies leading to further loss of lives.

The European Union and its Member States are increasingly strengthening capacities of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, “to develop jointly targeted actions to prevent irregular departures”, as stated in Point 3 of the EU Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean, despite the many human rights violations committed in those countries against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

“The support provided by the EU to authoritarian regimes in exchange of their help in curbing migration flows increases the risk and dangers faced by migrants and people on the move. Today, the EU is actively funding and cooperating with countries that violate human rights”, mentioned Sara Prestianni from EuroMed Rights.

According to Khadija Ainani from the Moroccan Association from Human Rights (AMDH), “Morocco used to be a reception country for many migrants. Now it has become a transit country to Europe, attracting many EU funds to block departures. This has created a situation whereby Morocco is not only controlling EU borders but also adopting repressive policies in its territory, with an increase in arbitrary arrests of people on the move. Outsourcing border control and transferring the reception ‘burden’ to countries like Morocco reinforces the precarious status of migrants and the risk of deaths at sea.”

Instead of focusing on containing migration and preventing departures by increasing border control and the capacity of countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the EU and its Member States should focus on avoiding further losses of lives at sea by opening legal and safe pathways to Europe.

For example, in the first six months of 2023, there have been at least 1,030 documented migrant deaths in the Central Mediterranean. According to IOM, the first quarter of 2023 has been the deadliest first quarter since 2017.

Helena Maleno from Ca-minando Fronteras: “Today we witness the presence of border regimes that do not allow for the search for justice and responsibility for the everyday loss and deaths at our frontiers. It is a practice of “necro-politics”, a regime based on killing actively and letting people on the move die.”

Criminalisation and hate speech against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in the Maghreb and Mashreq regions

Across the whole region, in recent months, there has been an increase in hate speech, racism, discrimination and violence against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, from Turkey to Lebanon, from Tunisia to Algeria.

In Turkey, for example, migration has become a central topic in Turkish politics, and it has been used as a propaganda tool by the authorities during the recent election campaign. During the election period, disinformation fuelled negative public perception on refugees by using false allegations accusing them of being criminals or members of terrorist organizations, etc. The socio-economic crisis plays a key role in the increase in hate speech against Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as in Lebanon. Here, the government has increasingly targeted refugees as scapegoats for the socio-economic crisis and increased the dangerous anti-refugee rhetoric and started implementing deportations of Syrian refugees to Syria.

In the Maghreb region, the situation has also been deteriorating, with the recent authoritarian drift in Tunisia and the rising wave of racism, discrimination and hate speech against Sub-Saharan African migrants, resulting in violence and deadly attacks. Algeria is also going in a similar direction, with massive deportations and pushbacks at the border with Niger, often based on racial profiling, although Algeria is a signatory of 8 out of 9 international conventions on human rights, including the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

In this context, the EU and Member States’ policies on migration and asylum play a very big role and have an important responsibility in the human rights violations committed against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

The EU Pact on Migration & Asylum: still dangerous and inhumane

During today’s Council meeting, EU Member States will try to reach an agreement on some of the main legislative files in the EU Pact, in particular on the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation (RAMM) and the Asylum Procedure Regulation (APR).

As we’ve been denouncing since its presentation, the EU Pact aims to reduce fundamental human rights and guarantees for asylum seekers, migrants and refugees in the EU, and to increase the risk of pushbacks and refoulements at borders, as well as detention.

One of the most concerning points of the APR, for example, is that it increases the use of border procedures and detention at borders, including of children from the age of 12. Also, the return procedures will be implementable before an appeal, therefore the appeal procedure will be non-suspensive. The RAMM does not really alter the Dublin rules, there are no mandatory relocation mechanisms, and externalisation options - such as increasing third countries’ border control capacities – will be possible as forms of voluntary “solidarity” contributions.

There is a real need to completely change the current migration and asylum policies and implement truly human rights-based migration and asylum policies. It is time to structurally increase legal and safe pathways for protection, by increasing visas, resettlement, humanitarian corridors, expanding the criteria and simplifying the procedures for family reunifications, as well as respecting the right to freedom of movement and not impeding it with all possible means, by containing migrations and performing unlawful pushbacks. It is important to set up an EU-wide Search and Rescue operation in order to reduce the number of deaths and disappearances at sea.



  1. Association tunisienne des femmes démocratiques (ATFD)
  2. Italian recreational and cultural association (ARCI)
  3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  4. Centre for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria (CLA)
  5. Centre for Peace Studies Croatia (CMS) 
  6. CNCD 11.11.11 - Centre national de coopération au développement
  7. Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR)
  8. Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS) 
  9. EuroMed Rights 
  10. Greek Council for Refugees (GCR)
  11. Human Rights Association Turkey (IHD)
  12. KISA – Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism
  13. Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits Humains (LADDH)
  14. Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH)
  15. Ligue Tunisienne des Droits Humains (LTDH)
  16. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)

For the latest updates on Migration and Asylum, check out our On the move webpage.


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