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NGOs urge European Commission to put under scrutiny Italian law restricting search and rescue activities at sea

On Friday, July 14, 2023

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The NGOs submitting the complaint are Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Oxfam Italia, SOS Humanity, Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) and EMERGENCY. They argue that the law raises serious concerns regarding its compatibility with relevant EU law and the obligations of EU member states under international law regarding search and rescue activities at sea.

The European Commission is the guardian of EU treaties and has a role to play in ensuring that EU member states respect international and EU law,” says Giulia Capitani, migration policy advisor at Oxfam Italia. “It should uphold and protect the fundamental rights of all people across Europe. But instead, search and rescue NGOs are the ones filling the shameful void at sea left by EU member states. Rather than obstructing their work, EU member states should involve them in setting up a proper system for search and rescue activities."

In January 2023, Italy introduced a new decree that became law in March. Law 15/2023 restricts search and rescue vessels from carrying out more than one rescue operation at a time, as the legislation states that search and rescue vessels should navigate towards the assigned place of safety after a rescue operation, without delay; this implies that vessels should not be providing assistance to other boats in distress. The law also obliges captains of vessels having conducted a rescue to provide unspecified information to Italian authorities about the rescue conducted; which in practice has led to the request of excessive information.

With Italian law 15/2023, the people rescued, already in a state of extreme fragility, run even greater risks to their physical and mental health.

The new law is compounded by the recent practice by Italian authorities of assigning distant ports to disembark survivors after rescues. This policy is not included in any legislation but has become common practice since December 2022, with search and rescue vessels frequently being assigned places of safety in northern rather than southern Italy, significantly increasing their journey time and limiting their presence in the search and rescue zone.

The five NGOs making the complaint believe that the combination of these measures puts unjustified restrictions on search and rescue operations and drastically limits their ability to save lives at sea.

Every day we spend away from the search and rescue region, whether in detention or navigating towards a distant port, is putting lives at risk,” says MSF operations manager Djoen Besselink. “The law targets NGOs, but the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the Mediterranean who find themselves in a boat in distress.” The increased journey time to places of safety in northern Italy also brings physical and mental health risks for the rescued people on board. “Assigning places of safety more than 1,000 km away from a rescue harms the physical and psychological wellbeing of survivors,says Josh1, captain of SOS Humanity’s rescue vessel Humanity 1. “The 199 people we recently rescued, including pregnant women and babies, were forced to travel around 1,300 km to disembark in Italy, although other Italian ports were much closer.

"Rescued people come from countries affected by wars, climate change and human rights violations,” says EMERGENCY’s rescue vessel Life Support coordinator Carlo Maisano. “They are often in an extremely fragile condition, which is exacerbated by even more time spent at sea.

The increased distances also have a negative impact on the NGOs themselves. 

“The practice of assigning distant ports increases the fuel costs for NGOs and depletes their limited budgets, which impacts their capacity to save lives in the future," says Maisano.

On 23 February 2023, Law 15/2023 (which was still a decree-law at the time) was applied for the first time when Ancona Port Authority notified MSF of a 20-day detention order for its ship and eventually a fine of €5,000. The penalties were imposed for failing to provide specific information that MSF had never been asked to share before.

Since then, the Italian authorities have detained four other humanitarian search and rescue vessels – Aurora2, Louise Michel, Sea-Eye 43 and Mare*Go4– for a period of 20 days each for violating Law 15/2023. This adds up to a total of 100 lost days for humanitarian search and rescue ships, while dangerous crossings and shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean have continued.

MSF, Oxfam Italia, SOS Humanity, ASGI and EMERGENCY call on the EC to put Italy’s Law 15/2023 and its practice of assigning distant ports under immediate scrutiny. As guardian of the EU treaties, it is the responsibility of the EC to ensure that EU member states comply with relevant law and stop obstructing the lifesaving work of search and rescue NGOs. Instead, NGOs should be included into state-led and proactive search and rescue capacities in the Central Mediterranean Sea.

1 Who has asked to be identified by his first name only
2 Operated by Sea-Eye e. V.
3 Operated by Sea-Eye e. V.
4 Operated by Sea-Watch e.V.

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