Sea Watch, an organisation that conducts search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, had multiple ships detained and inspected by Sicilian port authorities over the past months. The organisation decided to issue a legal challenge and Italian judges asked the European Court of Justice for guidance, resulting in the ruling that port authorities do not have the right to search or detain ships solely because they are carrying rescued people. However, the court gave a mixed ruling as it also said that regularly running search and rescue operations with ships certified for cargo does provide ground for port authority controls, according to Reuters.
Sea Watch saw this ruling as a defense of its case, stating that it was “a victory for sea rescue.” It also said that “the fact that port state controls can continue to take place on N.G.O. ships is a good thing. They are intended to ensure ship safety, which is important to us. Arbitrary controls, on the other hand, must finally come to an end.” According to AP News, the E.C.J. said that people rescued at sea “must not be taken into account when verifying whether the rules on safety at sea have been complied with. The number of persons on board, even if greater than that which is authorised, therefore, in itself cannot constitute a ground for a control.” The guidance also stated that “the port State may adopt detention measures only in the event of a clear risk to safety, health or the environment, which it is for that State to demonstrate,” according to Jurist.
This ruling does indeed support the actions of ships attempting to rescue anyone in danger at sea, including migrants trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. Allowing searches and detainment based solely on the increased number of passengers would dissuade ships from attempting rescues. With this ruling, ships are able to abide by international law to respond to distress calls, a requirement highlighted by Reuters.
The allowance for authorities to inspect ships with reasonable suspicion is also important, as it ensures that there is still enforcement of safety measures for the prevention of issues such as trafficking and smuggling. Furthermore, the requirement that the state performing these inspections must be responsible for proving this suspicion is vital, as state authorities already have the resources to do this, while ship personnel would require additional resources they may not be able to provide.
Migrants have been attempting to cross the Mediterranean for years, with many perishing during the dangerous journey due to a lack of appropriate crafts or supplies. According to U.N.H.C.R., the number of migrants who went missing or died at sea has been steadily increasing since 2019, reaching 3,231 last year. Many of these migrants are from the East and the Horn of Africa as well as the Middle East, places that the U.N.H.C.R. says have been “affected by years of conflict and displacement” and “where human rights abuses are not uncommon.” In the past years, the E.U. has responded to the migrant crisis by attempting to discourage crossings, which Human Rights Watch argues ignores the reasons people attempt the crossing and will likely fail.
The E.C.J.’s ruling, while not guaranteeing any changes in the current refuge policies in the E.U., does demonstrate that the group is committed to maintaining and enforcing current laws that support the rights of those seeking refuge. This decision allows ships to rescue anyone in danger at sea without fearing retribution while allowing authorities to ensure the safety of everyone onboard and on land. The guidance means that those making the perilous trip across the Mediterranean will have some additional support, making it safer for those who will inevitably try to cross regardless of how dangerous it is because their circumstances at home are even worse.
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