A stand-off involving the blocking of or delays to disembarkation of hundreds of survivors on four different NGO vessels has left the new Italian government on collision course with neighboring France, NGOs and international law.

The new far-right Italian government has faced and failed the first major challenge in its attempt to prevent disembarkation of survivors rescued by civilian vessels on the Mediterranean. A stand-off began on 4 November off the coast of Sicily when the Italian government issued a decree especially for the vessel in question, the Humanity 1. The decree bans the ship from Italian waters except for the purposes of  “selective disembarkation” of just the people facing medical emergencies or considered vulnerable.  Similar decrees were issued for the other rescue ships seeking to disembark people, and the stance of the government received widespread criticism. According to ECRE member ASGI, legal specialists, the approach of selective disembarkation violates  the UN Refugee Convention, The European Convention on Human Rights and is based on misinterpretations of International Law of the Sea (ILOS). Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi stated that NGO vessels “must return outside territorial waters, and the flag state must take charge of them”. However, legal experts have underlined  that ILOS requires disembarkation in a nearby place of safety and that it is only on the High Seas – not in territorial waters – that people rescued at sea are under the jurisdiction of the flag state. Even then, there is no requirement that they be escorted to the flag state – prompt disembarkation is priority. Disputes among states often concern the question which port should accept rescue ships. Francesco Negozio, PhD candidate and UN expert, stated: “Despite the Italian government’s claims that NGO vessels’ flag states should be responsible for the shipwrecked migrants, as long as they are in the Italian sea, they are subject to Italian jurisdiction”. “Under maritime law, a rescue terminates when all rescued persons are disembarked in a place of safety,” Judith Sunderland from Human Rights Watch stated pointing to the fact that a partial disembarkation would not qualify as the mission being completed. Sunderland also noted: “A ship is not a place of safety except for a very short period of time, and it is not the place where genuine assessments of people’s vulnerability or their requests for asylum can be considered”.

Meanwhile, roughly 1000 survivors were stranded at sea as Italy blocked disembarkation in stand-offs involving four civilian rescue vessels. On 4 November Mission Lifeline rescued 95 people including children and babies and by 5 November it reported a tense situation on board the vessel Rise Above. Two people were evacuated by Italian authorities for medical reasons. On 6 November the organisation stated: “4 people with serious medical complications were evacuated from the ship. After 3 days at sea without a safe port, the situation continues to deteriorate”. On 8 November, the disembarkation of the 89 remaining survivors in the port of Reggio Calabria was finally confirmed.  Humanity 1 operated by SOS Humanity and carrying 179 survivors was instructed after weeks of waiting to enter the port of Catania on 5 November. However, the organisation stated: “We have not been assigned a place of safety for the disembarkation of all survivors as required by international law. Instead, 35 are ordered to stay on board. This is unlawful and unacceptable!”. The following day the captain of the vessel refused Italian orders to leave the port with survivors still onboard. According to the organisation because: “Maritime law obliges him to bring all those rescued from distress at sea to a place of safety” and because turning them back “from territorial waters is a form of collective refoulement and therefore illegal”. The NGO hotline, Alarm Phone, declared solidarity, stating: “Civil disobedience is the only response to cruel, illegitimate, and illegal orders by Italian state authorities!”. On 7 November SOS Humanity announced legal action against the Italian government. On 9 November, after the majority of remaining survivors had been on hunger strike for days the organisation finally confirmed their disembarkation. The Geo Barents vessel operated by MSF Sea and carrying 572 survivors – many having spent weeks at sea – was instructed by Italian authorities to enter Catania’s port on 6 November but stated the following day: “According to international law, all survivors need to disembark in a place of safety as soon as possible. Instead, 215 were ordered to stay on board, which makes the situation unsustainable”. On 7 November, the organisation announced the evacuation “of a survivor on board suffering from acute abdominal pain” and stated: “Despite the efforts of our team, it is impossible to continuously identify all cases that require medical attention. All people rescued at sea need assistance and to disembark as soon as possible”. Under deteriorating conditions tired and desperate survivors were treated for panic attacks by MSF medical staff and the organisation reported: “Three survivors just jumped overboard” stating “This outrageous situation must stop now!”. Finally, on 8 November MSF Sea could confirm the disembarkation of the remaining survivors stating: “After an assessment of vulnerability done by the Italian health authorities, all 213 survivors will be allowed to disembark. This unjustified wait is finally coming to an end”. On 6 November, SOS MEDITERRANEE operating the Ocean Viking rescue vessel carrying 234 survivors reported: “Extreme weather conditions were very hard for the survivors sleeping on deck. 16 days of waiting since the 1st rescue. This is the longest time ever spent by survivors on board Ocean Viking. Their physical & mental health is getting worse. They urgently need a place of safety now”. In a press release published on 8 November, “after daily and multiple” requests for the designation of a Place of Safety, the organisation stated: “Following Italy’s silence, SOS MEDITERRANEE urges French maritime authorities to assign a port to disembark”. The confirmation on 10 November of a port of disembarkation in Toulon, southern France was received by the rescue organisation with “a mixture of relief and anger”. While expressing relief, director of operations, Xavier Lauth also noted: “Disembarking almost three weeks after their rescue, so far from the area of operation in the central Mediterranean, is the result of a dramatic failure from all the European states, which have violated maritime law in an unprecedented manner” and pointed out: “Civil rescue ships, operated by NGOs such as SOS Mediterranee, are only filling the gap of the serious and deadly disengagement of European states in the central Mediterranean”.

French media have described “A diplomatic row” between France and Italy prior to the confirmation of a safe port for Ocean Viking – reportedly gaining steam after Italian PM, Giorgia Meloni  and Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani publicly thanked France for allowing disembarkation before it was confirmed. On 9 November, French government spokesperson, Olivier Veran decried “the current attitude of the Italian government, notably its declarations and refusal to accept the ship” as “unacceptable” adding: “The ship is currently in Italian territorial waters, there are extremely clear European rules that were accepted by the Italians”. In response to the situation French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin warned of “extremely severe consequences for our bilateral relations” with Italy. The Minister pointed to measures to strengthen border controls and the suspension of an agreed relocation of 3,500 refugees from Italy. In June 2022, under the French Presidency of the Council, 21 European countries signed the Declaration on Solidarity a voluntary mechanism for relocation from Italy and other border states. Reportedly, just 164 asylum seekers have relocated from Italy to EU member states this year.

While the European Commission stated it has “no competence to decide which boats can or cannot enter a country’s territorial waters,” a statement released on 9 November called: “for the immediate disembarkation, at the nearest place of safety, of all persons rescued and who are on board the Ocean Viking”. The Commission further noted: “The legal obligation to rescue and to ensure the safety of life at sea is clear and unequivocal, irrespective of the circumstances that lead people to be in a situation of distress”. In a joint statement released on 7 November, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on states to end the “current impasse” and ensure the swift disembarkation of survivors without delay but also noted: “Safe disembarkation should be followed by meaningful responsibility-sharing between all concerned states through regional, co-operative arrangements so that all coastal states can discharge their search, rescue and disembarkation responsibilities. A piecemeal and ad-hoc approach from the high seas which continues to leave coastal states alone cannot be pursued and is not sustainable”.

Meanwhile deaths and civilian rescues continues in the central Mediterranean where 2,836 migrants and refugees have lost their lives since January 2021 attempting to reach Italy or Malta. Maltese non-response tactics to people in distress in the country’s SAR zone continues to be denounced. “Alarm Phone would be quite happy if Malta lived up to its duties: coordinating rescues, not coordinating pushbacks or forms of non-assistance or abandonment,” a spokesperson for the organisation told Maltese media. On 6 November Alarm Phone reported of 500 people in distress in Malta’s SAR zone after fleeing Libya three days prior with authorities unresponsive – the organisation later lost contact with the group but announced the following day a possible rescue by Italian authorities.

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