The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled Monday that two vessels owned by non-profit Sea Watch may have been wrongly detained by the Italian government. Sea Watch rescues migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in vessels that are not seaworthy.
Sicilian port authorities detained Sea Watch’s cargo ships in 2020 after the boats rescued and brought migrants to the ports of Palermo and Empedocle. Sicilian authorities argued that the vessels were overcrowded and were registered as German cargo ships and not search-and-rescue vessels. Sea Watch then appealed the detention in Italian court. The Italian courts requested that the ECJ review the case and give recommendations to the Italian court on whether the search and detention violated EU law.
The ECJ found that:
Ships of humanitarian organisations systematically carrying out activities relating to the search for and rescue of persons at sea may be subject to controls by the port State. However, 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.
The court came to this conclusion using Directive 2009/16, which governs both inspection powers of EU governments and the duty of ships to respond and assist during an emergency. The court found that Sea Watch has a right to rescue, despite its cargo status, under its duty to assist during a maritime emergency. However, the court also found, under the same directive, that while the assisting in an emergency is not enough to trigger an inspection on its own, if the EU member state thinks the conditions aboard the vessel are unsafe, that may be enough on which to base an investigation and detention after the emergency has ended.
Sea Watch has celebrated the ruling as a legal victory, stating, “The fact that port state controls can continue to take place on NGO 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.”
The case will now be handed back to the Italian courts, which will take the ECJ ruling under advisement when a final ruling is made. The ECJ ruling is not binding on the Italian courts nor on either party to the legal dispute.
According to the UN, 53,323 migrants came by sea to Italy in 2021. At least 1,924 migrants are thought to have died or gone missing during the crossing, with the actual number estimated to be slightly higher.