Italy condemned over rescue ship fines

17 Jun 19

Italy’s populist government has further tightened its tough policy towards migrants by threatening rescue boats with hefty fines.

The measure introduced through a security decree could finally halt the solidarity missions being operated by non-governmental organisations trying to save people in the Central Mediterranean.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR called on Italy’s government to reconsider the measure that it warns will penalise rescues at sea, urging Rome to prioritise “the saving of human lives”.

For more than a year the government – which has declared the country’s waters closed to NGO rescue vessels – has been tightening restrictions on NGOs operating boats to help migrants being transported by sea in dangerous conditions, mostly from Libya.

Of 10 NGO rescue boats that have been active in the Mediterranean in recent years just one – that of the German organisation Sea-Watch – now continues to operate.

The latest move would hit boats that operate without permission with fines of up to €50,000 and is contained in a security and immigration bill drafted by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, that was signed into law last week.

Growing conflict in Libya is increasing departures at a time of favourable sea conditions, prompting warnings that the risk of migrants being shipwrecked and drowning at sea is now higher than ever because of the absence of rescue ships.

Aid groups denounced the move by Salvini, head of the far-right Northern League, who has already singled out Sea Watch as a priority target of fines.

MSF says that in the years since Italy closed its ports to humanitarian vessels rescuing people in the Central Mediterranean at least 1,151 people have died.

Claudia Lodesani, president of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières in Italy, said: “Fining the captain or the ship owner of a search and rescue vessel is like fining an ambulance taking patients to hospital.

“Saving lives is not a crime. It is a legal obligation that EU member states should make a priority.”

Roland Schilling, UNHCR Regional Representative to Southern Europe, said: “At a time when European states have largely withdrawn from rescue efforts in the Central Mediterranean, NGO vessels are more crucial than ever.

“Without them, it is inevitable that more lives will be lost.”

  • Gavin O'Toole, expert on Latin America
    Gavin O'Toole

    A freelance journalist. He has written six books about Latin America and taught the politics of the region at Queen Mary, University of London.

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