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Italy sea rescue law could put more migrant lives at risk: UN rights chief

Almost 1000 people have died on the central Mediterranean migrant route in 2021. (file)
SOS Méditerranée/Anthony Jean
Almost 1000 people have died on the central Mediterranean migrant route in 2021. (file)

Italy sea rescue law could put more migrant lives at risk: UN rights chief

Human Rights

A proposed new law in Italy on humanitarian search-and-rescue (SAR) operations could hinder the provision of lifesaving assistance in the Central Mediterranean and result in more deaths, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk warned on Thursday. 

“More people in distress will be made to suffer and more lives risk being lost because timely help is not available, if this law is passed,” he said in a statement

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Mr. Türk expressed his serious concerns a day after the Italian Parliament approved legislation that imposes stricter requirements on humanitarian ships which are attempting to save migrant lives on the high seas. 

Against multiple rescues 

Ships are required to head to port immediately after a mission and not carry out additional rescues, even if they are in the immediate vicinity of people in distress. 

Italy also recently designated distant ports of disembarkation for rescued migrants, which can be several days’ sail from the original rescue site. 

The Senate is scheduled to consider the proposed law next week. 

Punishing migrants and rescuers 

“The law would effectively punish both migrants and those who seek to help them. This penalization of humanitarian actions would likely deter human rights and humanitarian organisations from doing their crucial work,” said Mr. Turk. 

He recalled that under international law, a captain is duty-bound to render immediate assistance to those in distress at sea, and States must protect the right to life. 

“But under this new proposal, a nearby SAR vessel would be obliged to ignore the distress calls of those at sea simply by virtue of having already saved others,” he said. 

“Those left stranded at sea would be forced to endure prolonged exposure to the elements and risk losing their lives. Those who survive, face increased delays in accessing adequate medical care and rehabilitation, including for victims of torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations.”  

Sanctions and fines 

The UN rights chief said the proposed law also risked increased interceptions and returns to Libya – a location his Office has repeatedly said cannot be considered a safe port of disembarkation.  

It also calls for crews to register every person who is planning to ask for international protection. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that do not comply would be subject to administrative sanctions, fines and have their vessel seized. 

Not the answer 

Mr. Türk urged the Italian Government to withdraw the proposed law

The authorities are also advised to consult civil society groups, in particular search and rescue NGOs, to ensure any proposed legislation complies fully with international human rights law, international refugee law, and other applicable legal frameworks.  

“We all watch with horror the plight of those crossing the Mediterranean, and the desire to end that suffering is profound. But this is simply the wrong way to address this humanitarian crisis,” he said.