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NGOs: Italy's new decree 'obstructs' migrant rescue operations in Mediterranean

Irregular migrants are seen with Tunisian National Guard off the city of Sfax in the south of Tunisia on October 28, 2022 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]
Irregular migrants are seen with Tunisian National Guard off the city of Sfax in the south of Tunisia. [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

Several international NGOs concerned with the search and rescue (SAR) of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea yesterday condemned the Italian government's intention to "obstruct assistance to people in distress" by virtue of a decree on rescue operations at sea, which, according to them, will lead to new deaths.

This decree, which came into force on 2 January, "ostensibly targets Search and Rescue NGOs, but the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the central Mediterranean and finding themselves in situations of distress," Doctors Without Borders and 20 other organisations said in a joint statement.

"We, civil organisations engaged in search and rescue (SAR) activities in the central Mediterranean Sea, express our gravest concerns regarding the latest attempt by a European government to obstruct assistance to people in distress at sea," the NGOs said in the statement.

The new Italian decree requires civilian rescue ships to immediately head to Italy after each rescue, which according to the NGOs would delay further life saving operations, as ships usually carry out multiple rescues over the course of several days.

"Instructing SAR NGOs to proceed immediately to a port, while other people are in distress at sea, contradicts the captain's obligation to render immediate assistance to people in distress, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea," the statement said.

"NGOs are already overstretched due to the absence of a state-run SAR operation, and the decreased presence of rescue ships will inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea," they added.

The NGOs urged the Italian government to immediately withdraw the decree and called on all members of the Italian Parliament to oppose it and prevent it from being converted into law.

European Commission spokeswoman Anita Heber yesterday called on Italy to "respect international laws and the law of the sea".

More than 20,000 people have died or gone missing since 2014 while trying to cross from North Africa to Europe, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

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