Italy bans NGO planes from using airports close to migrant routes

Rome: Italy said that planes used by charities to track migrant boats in difficulty would no longer be able to fly from airports on the islands of Sicily, Pantelleria and Lampedusa that are close to the shipping routes.

The decision, announced by the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC), will make it much harder for non-governmental groups like Sea Watch to use its small planes to scour the central Mediterranean for boats in need of rescue.

“(This is) an act of cowardice and cynicism by those who criminalize the NGOs for political propaganda,” Sea Watch said in a statement on X, adding that it still planned to take to the skies to help migrants in distress.

In a written ordinance, ENAC said the planes were “unwarranted,” represented a burden for the official rescue teams and risked compromising the safety of undocumented migrants.

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the Italian decision “may hinder life-saving efforts”, and added that his agency was “waiting to understand its actual implementation.”

The NGO spotter planes regularly find boats in distress and direct rescuers to their location. They have also documented aggressive pushbacks by Libyan coast guards, who receive European funding to prevent migrants from crossing the sea.

Sea Watch said the ordinance was aimed at preventing the world from seeing what was happening.

“This attack, which tramples international law, will not deter us from continuing to disrupt those who would prefer to keep secret what is happening each day in the Mediterranean,” it said.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni won office in 2022 promising to clamp down on migrant arrivals from Africa.

Since then, her government has made it increasingly difficult for charity ships to operate in the Mediterranean, limiting the number of rescues they can carry out and often forcing them to make huge detours to bring migrants ashore.

She has also worked with the European Union to persuade both Libya and Tunisia to slow the flows, and has signed an unprecedented deal with Albania to build migrant holding centres there.

The government says its measures are working and therefore reducing drownings during the dangerous crossing. So far this year, 17,666 boat migrants have reached Italy against 44,739 in the same period of 2023, official data shows.