New Italian Sea Rescue Law Puts Migrants At Risk

Earlier this year, the Italian parliament approved legislation that imposes significantly stricter requirements and restrictions on search and rescue (S.A.R.) vessels that carry out life-saving work. Despite the United Nations Law of the Sea, which states that ships are obliged to rescue people in distress, the new demands include a requirement to dock at a port immediately after a mission has taken place before carrying out any other S.A.R. missions, even if people that need help are nearby. This remarkably hinders humanitarian vessels, which are already required to dock at specific ports – which could be up to four days’ sail away from the point of rescue – to allow migrants to disembark. Forcing S.A.R. vessels to ignore the distress calls of those at sea if they already have rescued migrants onboard risks people’s lives through prolonged exposure to the elements, and adding extra time to the journey means even those they can save from drowning will take longer to reach safety.

The law is inefficient, the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue says, calling the new procedures a waste of time and money that are already overstretched due to the absence of a state-run operation. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights also slammed the move. “This penalization of humanitarian actions would likely deter human rights and humanitarian organizations from doing their crucial work,” High Commissioner Volker Türk said.

Furthermore, the new legislation, which Italian president Sergio Mattarella formally signed into international law on January 2nd, requires crews onboard S.A.R. vessels to register every person applying for international attention. Non-governmental organizations that are involved but which don’t comply with these new regulations will be subject to sanctions and fines, and will also face the threat of having their vessel seized. But collecting data onboard rescue vessels contradicts international maritime law, human rights law, and European law, according to Sea Watch and many other S.A.R. N.G.O.s, and sharing this information with the authorities is inappropriate. SOS Humanity has called on the E.U. to take action.

Irregular migration is most visible via the Mediterranean, but the central Mediterranean route is also the deadliest known migration route. From 1993-2010, approximately 23,000 migrants arrived into Italy each year via the Mediterranean. By 2020, the number was 34,134, and by 2018, 49% of people that were attempting to cross the Mediterranean were brought to either Tunisia or Libya. There have been over 17,000 deaths and disappearances on the Mediterranean route since 2017, and, the remains of 12,000 people have been found since 2014. The Missing Migrants Project has recorded hundreds more human remains found on Libyan shores that are not linked to any known shipwreck, indicating that there have been even more deaths on the route than we know. The new S.A.R. law will force migrants to spend more time in these deadly waters, while nearby vessels that are capable of rescuing them will be legally unable to provide aid.

Italy has consistently and prominently obstructed civilian S.A.R. operations through defamation, administrative harassment, and criminalizing N.G.O.s and activists, but this is too far. In the best-case scenario, where the refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean manage to survive their crossing without succumbing to the horrendous conditions at sea, the new measures laid out by this law will push them right back into danger, either through the hands of smugglers or by exposing (or re-exposing) them to the violence and extortion of detention centres in places such as Tripoli. Not only is Italy’s new sea rescue law a massive violation of E.U., U.N., and maritime law, it is also a massive violation of human rights and empathy.