More than 70 lives lost off Libya. Italian parliament voted in favor of controversial law decree imposing restrictions on civilian rescue operators. The assigning of distant ports for disembarkation of survivors by Italy continues as does the ongoing crack-down on NGOs.  

Following the deadly tragedies on the Mediterranean last week another 73 people are missing and presumed dead after a shipwreck off Libya after departing Qasr Al-Akhyar, east of Tripoli on 14 February. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) Libya, reported on 15 February: “Seven survivors who made it back to shore in extremely dire conditions are currently in the hospital. So far 11 bodies have been retrieved by the Libyan Red Crescent and the local police”. More than 130 people have already died this year making the dangerous journey over the Mediterranean Sea and distress alerts from the NGO hotline, Alarm Phone have continued over recent weeks.

In advance of the vote in the Italian parliament on 15 February on the controversial government decree imposing strict conditions on civilian rescue operators, 65 German MPs urged Italian colleagues not to turn it into law. However, the legislation stipulating that NGOs must request port and sail for it “without delay” after an operation even in the face of other boats in distress, did pass the parliament vote and will now move on to the senate where a vote is expected by early March. “Since early January 2023, non-governmental search and rescue has been unlawfully restricted by a decree of the Italian government”, said Mirka Schafer of SOS Humanity, continuing: “Today, the Italian parliament voted to turn the decree into a law. Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty International’s Migration Researcher, stated: “These measures are clearly designed to hinder NGOs undertaking life-saving search-and-rescue missions in the central Mediterranean. De Bellis further pointed out: “This is part of an effort to ensure that as many people as possible are instead intercepted by Libyan coastguards and returned to Libya where they face arbitrary detention and torture” also adding: “This new legislation risks resulting in more deaths at sea. It will inevitably lead to increased suffering for shipwreck survivors, and in further criminalisation of the legitimate work of human rights defenders”.

Another, element of the Italian governments crack-down on civilian rescue operators is the assigning of distant ports for disembarkation of survivors. On 13 February, MSF Sea reported: “Following the rescue operation conducted earlier today, Italy has assigned us the port of Ancona to disembark the 48 survivors currently aboard Geo Barents”. The organisation added: “As repeated several times, requesting Geo Barents to navigate for 5 days when other suitable ports are much closer is against international law and the best interest of the survivors”. On 14 February, SOS MEDITERRANEE reported: “Ravenna, North of Italy, was assigned by Italian authorities to disembark the 84 survivors onboard Ocean Viking. Imposing a 4-day navigation has grave consequences, taking a critical toll on survivors’ physical & mental health after all the suffering endured at sea and in Libya”. Meanwhile, the court of Catania, Sicily ruled against the Italian government and in favor of another civilian rescue operator – SOS Humanity. According to the organisation, the court ruled: “that the issuance of an Italian inter-ministerial decree that imposed a ban on the rescue ship Humanity 1 on November 4, 2022, from stopping in territorial waters was unlawful conduct. It discriminatorily hindered the right to rescue and access to the asylum procedure. As a result, only a selection of the 179 survivors whom the search and rescue organisation SOS Humanity had rescued from distress at sea were allowed to disembark in the port of Catania”. SOS Humanity further notes: “The court’s decision is also significant for the subsequent decree-law issued on 2 January 2023, voted upon in the Italian Parliament on Wednesday, since the judge highlighted Italy’s duty to assist people in distress at sea. Italy is currently violating this very obligation by the newly imposed restrictions against non-governmental search and rescue organisations”.

On 9 February, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, condemned the “criminalisation and repression of human rights defenders involved in sea-rescue charities in Italy”. The UN official stated: “The ongoing proceedings against human rights defenders from search and rescue NGOs are a darkening stain on Italy and the EU’s commitment to human rights”. The statements came ahead of a hearing in the ongoing trial against 21 sea rescuers from Iuventa Crew and other organisations. According to Lawlor: “The proceedings have been plagued by procedural violations, including failure to provide adequate interpretation for non-Italian defendants and translation of key documents”. The Special Rapporteur, further raise strong concern over the request by the Italian governments recent request to join the case as plaintiffs, pointing out: “States that respect human rights promote the work of human rights defenders,” adding “The Government’s decision to seek to join the case goes directly against this principle – it is a very disturbing sign”. Iuventa issued a statement on 11 February, the day after the hearing “Lasting ten hours” and “dealing with the inadequate interpretation and the government’s request to appear as a joint plaintiff”. According to the organisation: “The judge rejected the iuventa’s lawyers objection that the quality of the interpretation during the interrogations had been insufficient. He acknowledged that many mistakes were made, but was of the opinion that these could only be considered as irregularities and that the overall meaning of the translated parts was sufficient for general fairness”. The decision went against the opinion of the experts appointed by the court deeming interpreters provided by the authorities unsuitable “as essential parts could not be understood by the defendant”. Kathrin Schmidt, iuventa defendant, stated: “The judge refuses to fully guarantee our rights to a defence, to understand the charges against us, to participate effectively and to ensure the fairness of the trial. This is happening in a case with much public attention, so it is easy to imagine the devastating consequences in countless cases against people on the move”. The judge will announce the decision on the government’s participation at the next hearing on 25 February.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.