Migrants are crowded together on deck of the rescue ship "Eleonore" as it seaches for a safe port in the Mediterranean. The "Eleonore" took in the migrants on August 26, 2019 off the Libyan coast, as their boat was sinking.

© 2019 Johannes Filous/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Italy’s new coalition government, fragile as it may be, presents a chance for the country to move away from migration policies that put lives at risk and back to those grounded in respect for human rights, including the right to life.

The new Five Star Movement-Democratic Party government should seek to undo the damage done by anti-immigrant and anti-rescue decrees introduced by outgoing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. The decrees should be revoked, not simply tweaked, as the coalition has suggested, and the government can rebuild policies from a clean slate.

The first decree, from late 2018, effectively abolished humanitarian visas that allow people who experienced extreme hardship and abuse to remain in Italy, leading to an increase in the number of people without legal status, according to a study. It also downgraded the care asylum seekers receive and increased the amount of time people can be detained pending deportation.

The second decree, which became law in early August, formalized the outgoing government’s “closed ports” policy, which barred rescue ships from entering Italian territorial waters. Ships that violated the decree could face fines of up to €1 million and seizure of the ship. This has left rescued people stranded on boats for weeks and deterred life-saving rescue efforts.

Just as the new coalition partners were finalizing their pact, authorities have seized the ships of two rescue NGOs, and one is facing a €300,000 fine for rescuing people at sea and making sure they were disembarked in a safe place.

Salvini didn’t push through these shameful policies on his own. The Five Star Movement was a willing, at times enthusiastic, partner. When it governed under the previous legislature, the Democratic Party took steps to undermine NGO rescues and led the way on greater cooperation with Libyan authorities despite the overwhelming evidence of brutality against migrants and asylum seekers there. Both parties should break with the past and set Italy on a new rights-based course.

Italy is right to call for and expect more European cooperation in the Central Mediterranean, and European Union governments should agree on a serious relocation mechanism. Italy can and should lead the way to more humane polices, on land and at sea.