Italy's parliament approves decree limiting charities' ability to rescue migrants

Rescuers refute the claim that their presence encourages migrants to undertake perilous voyages

Migrants arrive after being rescued at sea by an Italian Coast Guard ship, at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily. EPA
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Italy’s parliament has approved a decree that imposes stricter conditions on charities rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

MPs on Wednesday voted for the controversial decree, adopted by the right-wing government in January, to be introduced into ordinary legislation. It will now move to the senate, where a vote is expected by March 2.

The legislation, drawn up by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s conservative administration, stipulates that charity ships must request a port and sail to it "without delay" after a rescue, rather than remain at sea looking for other migrant boats in distress.

'More migrants will die on world's deadliest route'

Ship captains caught flouting the new rule risk incurring fines of €50,000 (£44,000) and having their boats impounded.

Charities and non-governmental organisations involved in search and rescue missions off the coast of Italy have for months been speaking out against the decree. Rescuers previously told The National that the change in rules risked strangling vulnerable people of their only lifeline while navigating rough seas, and would leave them with no choice but to ignore distress calls from migrants.

Rescuers immediately condemned the outcome of Wednesday’s vote, warning it violates EU law.

The vote took place as at least 73 people were feared dead after their boat sank off the coast of Libya.

"Since early January 2023, non-governmental search and rescue has been unlawfully restricted by a decree of the Italian government,“ Mirka Schafer of SOS Humanity said.

“Today, the Italian parliament voted to turn the decree into a law.

“The new regulations and the assignment of distant ports for those rescued from distress at sea are hindering rescue ships from their life-saving operations. Thus, even more people will die on the world's deadliest migration route.

“The new law violates international and European law. We therefore call on the EU Commission, as the guardian of the law, to take action against these breaches of law by an EU member state.“

Migrant ship docks in France after Italy refuses entry

Migrant ship docks in France after Italy refuses entry

The law is seen as Ms Meloni’s answer to the country’s migrant crisis, after she shot to power last year on a promise to slash illegal migration to Italy. The decree was signed by Italian President Sergio Mattarella on January 2.

Nino Stauffer, a volunteer with German NGO Sea-Eye, previously told The National: “This is, and has been, a cat-and-mouse game of the Italian government and the NGOs, at the cost of human lives.

“If all the time and effort consumed in law suits and court rooms would be invested in diplomacy and discourse we would be a great deal closer to resolving the tragedy in the Mediterranean.”

Mr Stauffer said the change in rules will tie the hands of rescue groups, who routinely spend weeks at sea picking up migrants in distress. The majority of those rescued are from sub-Saharan African nations and depart from beaches in Libya, where they have spent months and even years, he said.

The Swiss father-of-one said stories of sexual abuse, slavery and forced labour are common among those who have been rescued.

Many of those plucked from the sea or flimsy boats are victims of sexual abuse, slavery and forced labour, Mr Stauffer said. The shipyard worker from Zurich took part in Sea-Eye’s most recent mission in December in which his task was to manoeuvre a small boat transporting people from their dinghies to the main rescue ship.

He brought more than 100 migrants to safety during the weeks-long stint.

“The thing that struck me most was the empty waters and the state of the boats,” he recalled. “You would not want to transport animals in them. They are in such a state of disorder. It’s just not human that people have to travel for days or even weeks like this.

“Imagine a small apartment room with four people in it. Imagine them spending a week in this room. Now subtract all facilities – beds, kitchen, sink, toilet - now subtract the walls and roof. Add the sea. Add the night.

“The situation in Libya must be terrifying and [taking a boat] is literally their last resort. Most of the people cannot go back south [to their countries of origin].”

He said many arrive on Europe’s shores with “high expectations” to start a new life on the continent. However, they risk being deported because they do not hail from a country deemed unsafe by many governments.

Mr Stauffer said their faces show a mixture of “relief, joy and excitement” when he approaches in his boat.

“People are relieved that it’s not the Libyan coastguard finding them,” he said.

“I want to give back some of the privilege I have from the random fact that I was born in the global north. It’s just a drop in the ocean but I fell it’s worth a try.”

Seventeen rescue groups in January expressed their “gravest concerns” over the decree, among them Sea-Eye.

'A call to let people drown'

Maximilian James, spokesman for Sea-eye, told The National that the decree marked a turning point in how Italy cracks down on flows of illegal migrants.

“Italian authorities have changed their strategies,” he previously said. “There used to be long stand-offs between rescue vessels looking for a port and authorities. Now, they have done a 180 degree change.

“It’s a new phenomenon, a new chapter, but it’s the same story for almost 10 years now. The new decree will lead to more people drowning or getting lost at sea.”

Mr James said Sea-Eye’s lawyers are still analysing the details of the new decree but it appears that it “violates international law”.

“It is a call to let people drown,” he added.

He pushed back against the argument made by politicians that the presence of rescue ships in the Mediterranean encourages people to undertake dangerous, illegal journeys.

“It’s an old, old narrative,” Mr James said. “The opposite is true. Numerous studies show that there is no correlation between the number of refugees and the presence of rescue ships in the Mediterranean.

“The sad truth is that still, even with our presence in the Med, there are still a lot of drownings. We are not able to rescue all people.

“The people have often been sitting in a mixture of gasoline and seawater so many of them have fuel burns that can be severe.

“When you have seen what’s happening in the Mediterranean, when you have experienced it that close, it changes the perspective for a lot of people.”

Updated: February 15, 2023, 4:09 PM