Brussels, 13 July, 2023 – Five leading Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have submitted a complaint to the European Commission (EC) about Italian Law 15/2023 and the practice by Italian authorities of assigning ports distant from the area where the rescue took place, to disembark people from humanitarian search and rescue vessels.
The NGOs submitting the complaint are Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Oxfam Italia, SOS Humanity, Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) and EMERGENCY. They argue that the law raises serious concerns regarding its compatibility with relevant EU law and the obligations of EU member states under international law regarding search and rescue activities at sea.
In January 2023, Italy introduced a new decree that became law in March. Law 15/2023 restricts search and rescue vessels from carrying out more than one rescue operation at a time, as the legislation states that search and rescue vessels should navigate towards the assigned place of safety after a rescue operation, without delay; this implies that vessels should not be providing assistance to other boats in distress. The law also obliges captains of vessels having conducted a rescue to provide unspecified information to Italian authorities about the rescue conducted; which in practice has led to the request of excessive information.
The new law is compounded by the recent practice by Italian authorities of assigning distant ports to disembark survivors after rescues. This policy is not included in any legislation but has become common practice since December 2022, with search and rescue vessels frequently being assigned places of safety in northern rather than southern Italy, significantly increasing their journey time and limiting their presence in the search and rescue zone.
The five NGOs making the complaint believe that the combination of these measures puts unjustified restrictions on search and rescue operations and drastically limits their ability to save lives at sea.
The increased journey time to places of safety in northern Italy also brings physical and mental health risks for the rescued people on board. “Assigning places of safety more than 1,000 km away from a rescue harms the physical and psychological wellbeing of survivors,” says Josh, captain of SOS Humanity’s rescue vessel Humanity 1. “The 199 people we recently rescued, including pregnant women and babies, were forced to travel around 1,300 km to disembark in Italy, although other Italian ports were much closer.”
On 23 February 2023, Law 15/2023 (which was still a decree-law at the time) was applied for the first time when Ancona Port Authority notified MSF of a 20-day detention order for its ship and eventually a fine of €5,000. The penalties were imposed for failing to provide specific information that MSF had never been asked to share before.
Since then, the Italian authorities have detained four other humanitarian search and rescue vessels – Aurora2, Louise Michel, Sea-Eye 43 and Mare Go4– for a period of 20 days each for violating Law 15/2023. This adds up to a total of 100 lost days for humanitarian search and rescue ships, while dangerous crossings and shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean have continued.
MSF, Oxfam Italia, SOS Humanity, ASGI and EMERGENCY call on the EC to put Italy’s Law 15/2023 and its practice of assigning distant ports under immediate scrutiny. As guardian of the EU treaties, it is the responsibility of the EC to ensure that EU member states comply with relevant law and stop obstructing the lifesaving work of search and rescue NGOs. Instead, NGOs should be included into state-led and proactive search and rescue capacities in the Central Mediterranean Sea.
MSF has been engaged in search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean since 2015, since when its teams have rescued some 90,000 people from boats in distress. In May 2021, MSF launched its search and rescue ship Geo Barents, since when it has rescued more than 8,114 people.