Civil organizations engaged in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea Thursday released a joint statement condemning Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s new decree. 20 civil organizations said that though Italy’s decree is designed to target them, “the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the central Mediterranean and finding themselves in situations of distress.”
The civil organizations claim that Italy’s new decree, announced on January 2, violates international law. The joint statement references the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention), which bar impeding rescue operations or putting people already in distress at sea at further risk. Additionally, on December 1, 2022, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared, “Claims to international protection by rescued persons are best assessed in fair and efficient procedures on dry land, once disembarkation in a safe place has been secured.”
The civil organizations emphasized that their operations are already stretched thin because Italy has no state-run search and rescue operation. Italy’s new decree threatens to further complicate the civil organization’s search and rescue efforts by requiring captains to return to shore as soon as they make a rescue. That means that rather than allowing the vessel to continue its search and rescue operations for more survivors from potentially capsized migrant vessels, the captain is required to return to shore with the survivors they initially recover–even if it is only one person. The decree also requires the captain to collect data from rescued individuals to initiate their asylum claims before the vessel even docks.
Meloni said the new decree would prohibit those who “systematically violate” the law from doing so any longer and referred to the law as an effort to prohibit illegal immigration and human trafficking. The civil organizations fired back, calling the decree a “politically motivated framework” designed to obstruct “lifesaving SAR activities.” The civil organizations called upon the European Commission, the European Parliament, and EU member states to issue a rebuke of the new decree. They also called upon the Italian Parliament to reject the decree to prevent it from being passed into law.
Italy has been under fire from the international community for years for its anti-immigration policies. As recently as November 2022, a civil search and rescue organization launched legal action against the Italian government after the government failed to allow 35 rescued migrants to disembark in Italy. The UN previously called upon Italy to reverse course on their increasingly strict immigration policies in November 2018.