As a result of new amendments to Italy’s security decree, fines up to one million euros could be imposed on private rescue organizations who attempt to disembark rescued migrants in Italy or defy refusals to enter Italian waters. The latest amendments were passed into law by Italy’s upper house, the Senate, on Monday, August 5.
“The security decree [means] more power for the forces of law and order, more controls at the borders and more men to arrest [members of organized crime gangs]. Thanks to you, the Italians and to the blessed Virgin Mary,” wrote Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and author of the new law on Twitter, Monday August 5.
Fines will increase for private rescue ships which defy orders to stay outside Italian waters, or who try and bring rescued migrants ashore in Italy, Salvini explained. The 50,000 euro fines introduced in June are expected to double to up to one million euros from August onwards.
The decree also allows the Italian authorities to confiscate ships which bring people ashore despite a refusal. Authorities are also permitted to arrest the captains of those ships.
The law passed Italy’s upper house with 160 votes to 57 after having passed the lower house.
Had the government lost the motion, they would have had to resign, since the law had been put before the houses as a vote of confidence. Confidence votes are often used as a way of speeding up legislation through parliament. The decree will now become law just before the Italian parliament takes its summer break on Wednesday.
Salvini popularity on the rise
The motion is a resounding vote for the government, and although there is some dispute between the two coalition partners, Salvini's League party and the Five Star Movement led by Luigi di Maio, Salvini’s popularity seems to be on the rise. Reuters news agency cited a recent poll conducted by the Winpoll agency which put Salvini’s League party at 39 percent popularity. Reuters noted that made the League “Italy’s most popular party with more than double its share of vote at last year’s parliamentary election.”
The new law was heavily criticized by opposition party Democratic Party (PD), which broke down the details of the law on their website ‘Democratica.’
According to PD, the expanded powers of the Interior Ministry to forbid boats from entering Italian waters is a conflict of competences between the ministries of the interior, transport and infrastructure and justice. PD states that it is up to the ministry of transport and infrastructure to decide who enters an Italian port and it is up to the prosecutors under the ministry of justice to open investigations into allegations of crimes like ‘favoring illegal immigration.’
The PD also says that the new law could conflict Italy’s international obligations and that deciding what constitutes a “safe port in which to disembark rescued migrants” is still up for debate, but that pushing back migrants could contravene the international humanitarian conventions against refoulement.
Criticism of the new law
The PD noted that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, in June had also urged Italy to reconsider its proposed decree because of its effect on sea rescue in the central Mediterranean. Before the decree became law, the UNHCR said it was “concerned” that several of the provisions in the amended decree would affect migrants and refugees. "Sea rescue is a long-standing humanitarian imperative. It is also an obligation under international law. No vessel or shipmaster should be at risk of a fine for coming to the aid of boats in distress and where loss of life may be imminent," UNHCR said in a statement.
In a UNHCR press release, Roland Schilling, UNHCR Regional Representative to Southern Europe ad interim, called NGO rescue vessels “more crucial than ever.” He added: “without them, it is inevitable that more lives will be lost.” UNHCR again stressed that returning people to Libya should not be a valid option given the “volatile security situation” in that country.
The UNHCR had hoped, back in June, that the Italian parliament would amend the law with a focus on refugee protection and saving lives. The PD points out that one part of the law was amended: Originally, the Italian government had hoped to fine any rescue ship operating in Italian search and rescue zones; now they have limited the fines to those who enter Italian waters or ports without permission.
Further rescue ships launched
According to the left-leaning daily newspaper La Repubblica, the Italian President Sergio Mattarella is expected to sign off on the law but “could” voice his doubts in an open letter accompanying the law. These doubts reportedly included noting that the maxi-fines of one million could be seen as “excessive,” “draconian,” and do not always match the actions they are sanctioning. The TV channel, La7 also speculated on this subject but the journalist speaking admitted that since they didn’t have any word from the President the vaunted ‘letter’ could be notes in the margin of the law itself.
The captain of the Sea Watch 3, Carola Rackete, who defied an order to remain outside an Italian port at the end of June and landed the people she had rescued instead, was initially placed under house arrest. But she has now been freed and awaits further hearings in her case. This week, another private rescue ship set sail from the southern French port of Marseille.
Ocean Viking is chartered by Doctors without Borders and SOS Mediterranee and is sailing under a Norwegian flag.
It can take up to 200 people on board and has its own clinic. It will join several other rescue ships already operating in the central Mediterranean. The organization Sea-Watch recently marked the two year anniversary of its ship Iuventa being confiscated. They claim that before the ship was taken out of circulation, it had helped to save 14,000 lives. They repeat their statement that "rescuing people at sea is not a crime" and call on the authorities to release their ship Iuventa.