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Italy’s Anti-Rescue Decree Risks Increasing Deaths at Sea

New Policy Obstructs Lifesaving Work of Rescue NGOs, Violates International Law

Migrants swim next to their overturned wooden boat as Spanish NGO Open Arms performs an operation to rescue them, south of the Italian Lampedusa island in the Mediterranean sea, August 11, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Francisco Seco, file

The latest migration decree by Italy’s government represents a new low in its strategy of smearing and criminalizing nongovernmental organizations saving lives at sea. The government’s goal is to further obstruct the life-saving work of humanitarian groups, meaning that as few people as possible will be rescued in the central Mediterranean.

The decree prohibits vessels of search and rescue organizations from carrying out multiple rescues on the same voyage, ordering that after one rescue their ships immediately go to the port allocated by Italy and reach it “without delay,” effectively requiring them to ignore any other distress cases at sea.

The rule, which does not apply to other kinds of vessels, breaches the duty on all captains to give immediate assistance to people in distress under multiple international law provisions, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, the Palermo Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, and EU law.

The negative impact of the new rule is compounded by the government’s recent practice of assigning rescue boats very distant ports of disembarkation in northern and central Italy, requiring up to four days of navigation, in breach of the obligation to make available the nearest port of safety. Ordering rescue ships to sail to distant ports prevents them from saving lives in the central Mediterranean for longer periods of time, forces them to incur significant additional costs in fuel, food, and other expenses, and can increase the suffering of survivors on board.

The decree also imposes on nongovernmental rescue ships the duty to collect data from survivors onboard, including their intent to claim asylum, and share that information with authorities, in breach of EU laws, including the asylum procedures directive .

As 20 search and rescue organizations pointed out in a joint statement on January 5, the decree risks adding to the numbers of people already dying in the Mediterranean Sea or returned to horrific abuse in Libya.

The European Commission should call for the immediate withdrawal of this decree and an end to Italy’s practice of allocating distant ports and take legal enforcement action against rules that blatantly disregard EU legal obligations towards migrants and asylum seekers. Above all, it’s time for a state-led European search and rescue mission to prevent further avoidable deaths at sea.

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