Sea Watch 3 charity vessel rescues migrants at sea 24 December

New rescue decree increases risk of deaths say NGOs


On Wednesday (December 28), Italy’s government approved a cabinet decree which imposes tougher rules on charity ships that rescue migrants at sea. The new rescue decree will make it harder for such ships to rescue as many migrants as possible – with severe penalties in cases of non-compliance.

The government, under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, came to power on a strong anti-immigration ticket. Humanitarian organisations have led an outcry against the latest attack on undocumented immigrants, calling it unethical and potentially, life-threatening.

What does the new NGO rescue decree say?

The rescue decree says once ships rescue any individual(s), they should request a port and sail to it “without delay”. They should not remain at sea looking for other migrant boats in distress.

Currently, a number of charities and NGOs run rescue operations off the coast of Italy. They look for migrants whose flimsy boats might have capsized in choppy waters. Generally, these rescue vessels operate for days at a stretch; often conducting various rescues and taking potentially hundreds of people onboard.

Italy’s new law will necessitate captains to return to shore the moment they make even one rescue. Riccardo Gatti, who is in charge of a rescue ship run by the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières, told La Repubblica on Thursday the decree was part of a strategy that “increases the risk of death for thousands of people.”

A document from the office of Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said rescue vessels acted as a “pull factor” for those making the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean from Libya.

Charities have denied these claims, stating only a fraction of all immigrants enter Italy on rescue boats. Furthermore, the presence of these boats does not add to immigrants’ motivations to escape conflict or poverty back home.

Government Stance

NGOs that operate illegally in the Mediterranean rescuing migrants should pay newly introduced government fines for breaking a new code of conduct; just like citizens have to pay traffic fines, Transport Minister Matteo Salvini said on Thursday.

Fines of up to €50,000 euros are in place for those who break the code. Ships may be impounded for up to two months, or even seized under the new norms.

Salvini, head of the anti-migrant League party, is a former interior minister. As such, he stopped NGO run ships docking in Italy from 2018 to 2019. Salvini was in court on kidnapping charges as a result of his policies.

NGOs call the new decree illegal and inhumane

According to legal experts from German NGO Sea-Eye, the Italian government’s decree massively interferes with the rights of the flag state Germany, European law and international and regional human rights guarantees.

“According to the version of the decree available to us and a preliminary assessment of its legal content, it is likely to be unlawful insofar as it seeks to regulate the conduct of German-flagged vessels in international waters and to sanction them upon entry into the Italian territorial sea. The coastal state has no authority to regulate and enforce the rescue of foreign ships beyond its territorial sea (12 nautical miles). Thus, Italy cannot dictate how rescue operations in international waters are to be conducted, as this is a matter for the flag state (in the case of Sea-Eye Germany).

“Even according to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, Italy as a coastal state (and only in its own Search and Rescue Zone) can only coordinate and issue instructions, the enforcement of which, according to international and German law, is then in turn the responsibility of Germany as the flag state. Moreover, neither the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue nor the Guidelines of the International Maritime Organization provide a basis for the rules of conduct demanded by Italy”, says Prof. Dr. Valentin Schatz, member of the Sea-Eye Legal Team.

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