Charities operating rescue ships in the Central Mediterranean are complaining that a new decree adopted by Italy's right-wing government will limit their rescue capacity, thus putting many lives at risk.
In an attempt to reduce the flow of people reaching the country's shores, the Italian government on Wednesday (December 28) approved a decree to significantly limit the operational capacities of NGO vessels rescuing migrants in the Central Mediterranean Sea.
International aid groups have expressed their outrage at the measure taken by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
The decree mandates that after a rescue, the vessel must arrive without delay at an assigned port, rather than continue to provide assistance to other migrant boats in distress at sea.
"With the new rules imposed by the Italian government on NGO boats, we will be forced to leave rescue zones uncovered with the inevitable increase in the number of deaths,'' medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Twitter.
Normally, the ships can carry out multiple rescues of people on small boats before seeking a port of call when they reach capacity, which is often in Italy.
In addition, news agency dpa reported that the decree also demands that migrants and refugees on board should state whether they wish to apply for asylum and, more importantly, in which European Union country, and then fill out the applications.
In practise, this means that if they do not specify Italy as their country of asylum, the country of the rescue vessel's flag would have to be in charge, according to Italian authorities.
Read more: Italy introduces new rules for NGO sea rescues
Up to €50,000 in fines
In case of violations of the new rules, the government in Rome is threatening the captains of the civilian ships with steep fines of up to €50,000. The ships could also be confiscated by authorities and detained in Italian ports, according to dpa.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Meloni said at an end-of-year press conference that her government has put the migration issue back on the international agenda.
She also claimed that the decree would make the sea operations of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fall in compliance with international law. However, many say they already are.
Private sea rescue NGOs have slammed the decree.
"The Italian government's new decree is an invitation to drown," German NGO Sea-Watch tweeted.
"Forcing ships into port violates the duty to rescue, should there be more people in distress at sea. We will oppose this attempt to criminalize civilian sea rescue and deprive refugees of their rights," a Sea-Watch spokesperson added.
Sea-Watch also said its rescue missions were fully lawful, and that they would continue their work -- presumably the way they have done for years.
'Countless tragedies' to come
The operations of civilian rescue ships have long been a thorn in the side of the right-wing in Rome. In November, an attempt was made to ban two ships from bringing rescued people ashore, leading to a diplomatic stand-off between France and Italy over the Ocean Viking migrant rescue ship.
Along with the new measures, Italian officials have been assigning ports further and further north, away from the migrant routes -- in an apparent attempt to limit their capabilities to save further lives in the Central Mediterranean Sea.
The Ocean Viking vessel of the group SOS Méditerranée, for example, is currently traveling from southern Italy to the Italian port city of Ravenna in the northern Adriatic Sea with 113 rescued people on board, among them pregnant women, three babies and dozens of unaccompanied minors. The journey is expected to take them four days.
On Tuesday, the NGO said it was told to dock in Ravenna, located around 1,700 kilometers from its location, which could take "four long days" for the ship to get to.
"We fear that countless tragedies ... (will) keep occurring without a trace,'' SOS Mediteranee said, adding that charity boats operating in the search and rescue areas "only fill the gap of deadly disengagement of EU states in the Mediterranean Sea."
While aid workers say the measure is intended to harass them, the Italian government justifies its action against the organizations with the claim that they attract irregular migration from North Africa and help smugglers in the Mediterranean.
The NGOs reject this. In fact, if they private rescue mission were allowed to disembark at closer ports such as Lampedusa or any port in Sicily, they could pick up further people at risk along the route and return to their mission far more quickly.
Over 100,000 arrivals to Italy in 2022
The government's new rules come amid broader political fights over the EU's response to the life-threatening boat journeys taken by migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Pressure on the asylum systems and accommodation facilities of Mediterranean EU nations like Cyprus, Italy, Greece and Malta is growing due to more and more asylum seeking migrants and refugees arriving on their shores.
In turn, these nations have accused other EU countries of not doing their part to shoulder the burden and to distribute the responsibility for the arrivals fairly and squarely.
So far this year, more than 103,000 migrants have arrived in Italy -- up 55% over last year, according to the latest Italian Interior Ministry figures. Most of these migrants, however, have arrived independently and not on charity vessels, dpa reported citing Italian officials.
Nearly 1,400 people have died or are missing and presumed dead in the deadly Central Mediterranean Sea this year, according to the United Nations migration agency's Missing Migrants project.
with dpa, AP, ANSA