Charities turn on Italy’s government over rise in migrant sea deaths

By Thomson Reuters Feb 22, 2024 | 8:14 AM

ROME (Reuters) – A group of charities accused Italy’s right-wing government on Thursday of obstructing life-saving sea missions and contributing to a sharp rise in migrant deaths, with tough immigration laws it adopted last year.

More than 2,600 migrants died or went missing in the Central Mediterranean in the period from February 2023 to February this year, compared to just under 1,600 in the February 2022-2023 period, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The charities linked this rise to a migration decree adopted by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government in January 2023 and ratified by parliament a month later, which included restrictions on the activities of sea rescue charities.

“In light of the increasing death toll in the Central Mediterranean since early 2023, coinciding with the adoption of a new law by Italian authorities and the systematic assignment of distant ports to humanitarian rescue ships, we call on the Italian government to bring an immediate halt to the obstruction of our life-saving activities at sea,” they said in a joint statement.

A spokesman for the Italian interior ministry declined to comment.

Meloni said in December 2022 that a clampdown on charity ships was needed to stop them from acting as “ferry boats” for migrants, going “back and forth with human traffickers to shuttle people from one country to the other”.

Several groups running rescue ships in the Central Mediterranean, including Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Open Arms and Mediterranea Saving Humans, were among the 22 signatories of Thursday’s statement.

Among other things, the Italian decree forces charity ships to head to port immediately after a rescue, rather than stay at sea to look for other migrants in distress.

Italy and other European governments have taken an increasingly hard line on immigration in recent years, amid a swell in support for right-wing parties that want strict curbs on migrants arriving by sea from North Africa.

NGOs that do not comply with Italy’s new law face a fine of up to 10,000 euros ($10,850) and the temporary impounding of their ship. This has happened 16 times to nine NGO ships, the charities said.

“In many cases, we must choose between complying with the Italian regulation while knowing we might leave behind people at risk of drowning, or fulfilling our legal duty to carry out rescues, and subsequently facing fines, detention and the possible confiscation of our ships,” the NGOs said.

The charities said that under international maritime law, captains have a duty to rescue people in distress at sea.

The number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea jumped to more than 157,000 last year, from around 105,000 in 2022, but the pace of arrivals has slowed in recent months. People making the journey often do so in crowded, unseaworthy vessels.

($1 = 0.9214 euros)

(Reporting by Alvise Armellini; Editing by Keith Weir and Frances Kerry)