Italian Finance Police board the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 after it disembarked 47 migrants at the Sicilian port of Catania, southern Italy, January 31, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli, file

Update: (June 27, 2019) – As of 5:30pm local time, Italian authorities were still blocking the Sea Watch 3 from docking at the Lampedusa port, over 24 hours after they entered Italian waters. A tweet from the organization at 5:37pm carried a video message from the captain Carola Rackete saying authorities had indicated that “a solution is about to be found.”

(Milan) – Italy’s deliberate, inhumane policy of stranding migrants and asylum seekers on rescue ships puts all on board at risk and highlights Europe’s wider failure on migration in the Central Mediterranean, Human Rights Watch said today.

Two weeks after rescuing over 50 people off the coast of Libya, the rescue ship Sea Watch 3, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) boat, is defying Italy’s refusal to let the vessel enter Italian waters. The ship’s captain rightly ignored instructions to return the people to Libya since it is not safe. European governments and institutions have been largely silent.

“Having stranded people at sea for weeks, Italy should not compound that abuse by prosecuting the Sea Watch captain for the vessel’s life-saving efforts,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s high time that European Union institutions and members started looking at their own responsibility for a heartless policy that would rather see people die at sea or tortured in Libya than delivered to safety in Europe.”

Since June 2018, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini has effectively denied or delayed letting rescued people disembark in the country, leading to numerous similar stand-offs. However, this is the first time Italian authorities have applied a new decree, in effect since June 15, that allows the interior minister to deny entry to Italian territorial waters on public order grounds. Ships who disobey the order face fines up to 50,000 euros and seizure of the ship in case of repeated offense.

The European Commission should put Italy on notice that it is examining whether the decree breaches Italy’s obligations under EU law, Human Rights Watch said. The measure arguably contravenes the Asylum Procedures directive, the Schengen Border Code, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Although the Italian parliament has 60 days to approve the decree, it already has the force of law and is having a direct impact on the lives of people concerned.

EU countries should also urgently agree on a mechanism that would ensure predictable disembarkation within a reasonable time to avoid these unnecessary stand-offs at sea, Human Rights Watch said. Any agreement should include provisions for sharing responsibility for disembarked people among EU countries.

In this most recent stand-off, the Sea Watch 3 rescued 53 people from a rubber dinghy roughly 47 miles off the Libyan city of Zawiya on June 12. According to the organization, they alerted Italy, Malta, Libya, and The Netherlands (the ship’s flag state). Libyan authorities assumed coordination of the rescue operation, but according to Sea Watch, a Libyan coast guard boat arrived only after the organization had completed transfers of people from the rubber dinghy to their ship.

When Sea Watch requested all four authorities to assign a safe port for disembarkation, only Libya replied and instructed the ship to disembark in Tripoli. Refusing to take people to Libya on the grounds that it is not a safe place under the terms of international law, the Sea Watch 3 captain headed towards Lampedusa as the closest safe port.

While Italy evacuated 11 people off the ship to Lampedusa, it refused to allow the Sea Watch 3 to even enter Italian territorial waters. Forty-two people, including six women and three unaccompanied children, remain on board.

The European Court of Human Rights, responding to an urgent filing on behalf of the rescued persons on board Sea Watch 3, asked Italy to “continue to provide all necessary assistance,” but failed to order Italy to allow disembarkation. The Court adopted a similar position in January in a case also involving a Sea Watch ship, arguing both times there was no risk of irreparable harm.

There is mounting international concern over Salvini’s closed ports policy and the wider impact of EU policy on the human rights situation in the Central Mediterranean. Six United Nations (UN) experts recently called on Italian authorities to “stop endangering the lives of migrants, including asylum seekers and victims of trafficking in persons, by invoking the fight against traffickers. This approach is misleading and is not in line with both general international law and international human rights law.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet said measures that criminalize humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees, including those targeting sea rescues, “violate ancient and precious values that are common to us all, by penalizing compassion.”

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović issued a report on June 18 urging European countries to “ensure disembarkation only happens in safe places and without unnecessary delays,” as well as cooperate with rescue NGOs and “cease any acts of harassment.” The head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation’s Human Rights office has also criticized “judicial harassment and criminalization, smear campaigns, threats and even attacks” against organizations and individuals defending the rights of migrants and refugees.

Libya is a main hub for migrants and asylum seekers who attempt to reach European shores by sea. As a matter of policy and practice, Libyan forces take people they rescue or intercept at sea to Libya, where they face arbitrary detention in abysmal conditions and a well-documented risk of serious abuse, including forced labor, torture, and sexual violence. The UN has repeatedly emphasized that Libya is not a safe place to take people rescued at sea. Concerns about the dangers posed to those returned to Libya have been heightened as fighting rages around Tripoli among rival militia factions, putting detainees in detention centers there at further risk.

The law of the sea governing rescue operations imposes obligations on shipmasters to respond to situations of distress at sea and to take the people rescued to a safe place, which should be understood to mean a place where people would not face persecution or risk of torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees the right to asylum.

“It’s an upside-down world if the cost of a ship’s captain bringing people to safety on shore is breaking unjust laws and risking a massive fine,” Sunderland said. “Fundamental rights and compassion for those fleeing harm should prevail.”