NGOs warn of surging deaths on Mediterranean as rescues obstructed

Fifty-six humanitarian organizations issued a joint call on Monday for an immediate end to government actions that derail migrants’ assistance in the Mediterranean Sea, warning that NGOs often fail to fulfill their duty to rescue people due to states’ restrictions.

The call comes after the recent detention of three civil search and rescue (SAR) vessels – Aurora, Open Arms and Sea-Eye 4 – fully equipped for rescue activities, which are kept from operating at sea under a new Italian law.

The three detention orders, issued by Italian authorities in less than 48 hours, add to the significant caseload of administrative obstruction faced by NGOs this year, the organizations said in a joint statement.

The groups warned that SAR ships are urgently needed to prevent further loss of life on the deadliest migration route in the world, “yet EU member states – most prominently Italy – are actively obstructing civilian search and rescue efforts.”

According to the data provided by the organizations, since the beginning of 2023 there have been eight cases of detentions of NGO vessels in Italy alone.

The civilian search and rescue vessels Aurora, Geo Barents, Louise Michel, Mare*Go, Open Arms and Sea-Eye 4, were each prevented from going to sea for 20 days, based on “illegitimate regulations.”

The detention orders of NGO vessels are based on a recent law passed by Italy’s right-wing government, which increased requirements for carrying out SAR activities and introduced sanctions in case of non-compliance.

Under the new rules, Italian authorities can order civilian ships to head to an assigned port immediately after a rescue – even in situations where there are other boats in distress in the vicinity of the NGO vessel.

“Italy’s new law puts pressure on captains of the civil fleet to disobey international maritime law and the duty to rescue people in danger at sea. By obstructing rescue operations, Italian authorities are acting in contravention of the international legal obligation to carry out rescues at sea,” the NGOs said.

The organizations which have not complied with the demands of the Italian authorities have been fined up to €10,000 ($10,805) and their vessels have been detained for 20 days.

The NGOs stressed that in the months since Italy – backed by most EU member states – put these restrictive measures in place, the number of shipwrecks resulting in loss of life has increased dramatically.

Italy has been recently in the spotlight due to a spike in migrants’ arrivals on its coasts. Official data from the Interior Ministry shows between Jan. 1 and Aug. 24, 106,023 migrants landed in Italy, while in 2021, there were 37,169 and 52,558 the following year.

“We send an urgent warning to the EU and its member states: if humanitarian assistance at sea continues to be obstructed, we are likely to see a drastically decreased – or even non-existent – presence of civilian search and rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean by the end of the year,” the organizations said.

The groups called on the EU and its member states to act urgently to stop “the illegitimate obstruction of civilian search and rescue vessels by Italy,” asking that all civilian search and rescue ships be released immediately and any fines resulting from Italy’s new law must be dropped.

“The EU Commission must put an end to the derogatory practices of its member states to basic principles of international law at the EU’s external borders. Finally, EU states must create legal and safe corridors to prevent people from being forced onto unseaworthy boats in search of safety,” they said.

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