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Doctors Without Borders Ceases Migrant Rescues as Italy Toughens Regulations

Santi Palacios/AP

Over the past two years, Doctors Without Borders has saved the lives of 69,000 migrants trying to reach Italy from Libya.

And now, it no longer will.

The international group, known by its French initials, MSF, suspended its migrant rescue operations off the coast of Italy on Saturday due to “credible threats” from the Libyan government and increased resistance to its efforts by the Italian government.

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The news comes at a terrible time for the migrant crisis off the coast of Italy.

Last year, more than 4,500 migrants died trying to reach Italy from Libya; this year the number is already surpassed 2,200 for the first half of 2017, according to The Washington Post.  Refugees have been fleeing Libya and other countries in the Middle East and northern Africa to escape violence, drought, hunger, and joblessness. Global Citizen campaigns on helping refugees and those caught in crisis and emergency situations. 

Italian rescue teams stopped helping those off its coast in 2014, and allowed MSF and other humanitarian groups to fill the void, but the government has become hostile to the groups, according to MSF.

The group said on its website that Libya’s recent creation of a search and rescue zone restricted MSF’s ability to reach and help migrants in troubled water off Libya’s coast. The Italian government then warned MSF about “threats” made by the Libyan government, according to a statement from MSF.

Last week the government tried to get MSF and other groups to agree to new conditions to operate there, including having police officers aboard, promising not to go near Libyan waters or transfer migrants from one boat to another. MSF refused.

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“This code of conduct is all about making NGO ships less effective,” Matteo de Bellis, a migration researcher at Amnesty International, told the Post. “It’s the result of a wrong belief that having rescuers attracts migration.”

“It’s a trick to make NGOs more vulnerable to future legal actions,” Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, a professor at the University of Palermo, told the Post.

Doctors Without Borders said it would suspend the “search and rescue activity of its ship, Prudence” but that its medical team will still offer assistance to individuals who need it.

Still, it warned that the new restrictions would ultimately result in greater tragedy in the water between the Libyan and Italian coastlines.

“If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, there will be fewer ships in the area to rescue people from drowning. Those who will not drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya, which we know is a place of lawlessness, arbitrary detention and extreme violence,” said Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager.

“There will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya.”