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Italy puts curbs on sea rescue ops for migrants: What the new rules say

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 30-12-2022 Explained Desk
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On Wednesday (December 28), Italy’s far right government approved a cabinet decree which imposes tougher rules on charity ships that rescue migrants at sea, reported Reuters. These rules will make it harder for such ships to rescue as many migrants as possible – with severe penalties in cases of non-compliance.

The move comes amid the harshening of rhetoric and policies against immigrants in Italy. The new far-right government, under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, came to power on a strong anti-immigration plank. Meloni is the leader of the Brothers of Italy party, whose lineage stretches back all the way to Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party of the early 20th century.

Humanitarian organisations have led an outcry against the latest attack on undocumented immigrants, calling it unethical and potentially, life-threatening.

The Indian Express takes a closer look.

Italy’s refugee “crisis”

In the past 30 years, Italy has seen a rise in the number of migrants seeking refuge on its shores. According to World Bank data, in comparison with 1990 when international migrants formed 2.5 per cent of the total population, in 2015, international migrants made up around 9.5 per cent of the total population.

Multiple political and economic crises across Africa and West Asia have also led to rising “illegal migration” – undocumented refugees and asylum seekers entering Italy in clandestine ways. Often, migrants run great risks. For instance, a common route taken by migrants to enter Italy involves a treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea either from Turkey or North Africa.

Almost 104,000 migrants have disembarked in Italy so far in 2022, interior ministry data shows, compared with around 67,000 in the same period last year, 34,000 in 2020 and a peak of more than 181,000 in 2016.

Govt's anti-immigration stance

The influx of migrants into Italy has led to tensions in society, immigration becoming a hot-button political issue. A growing far right movement has gained traction in the country with the 2022 elections bringing a far right government to power. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been vocal about her objections to immigration and her anti-globalism stances.

In her career, Meloni has advocated for a blockade of migrants trying to reach Italian ports, stressing on the need to boost the birth rate of Italian nationals to ease the requirement for migrant labour. She had also once said that “Italy should repatriate migrants and sink boats that rescued them,” according to a report in The Guardian.

After coming to power on an anti-immigration stance, Meloni’s government has started delivering on its electoral promises. In a highly criticised plan enacted in October, Rome has made it harder for migrants rescued from sea to receive protection within its borders.

A standoff with a rescue boat made European headlines in early November. Italy refused to let a boat carrying nearly 200 refugees into its ports, with the vessel finally sailing to France instead. This led to a diplomatic standoff between the two nations.

Major consequences if a ship “looks for more rescues”

The latest cabinet decree says that once ships rescue any individual(s) from the sea, they should request a port and sail to it “without delay,” rather than remain at sea looking for other migrant boats in distress.

Currently, a number of charities and NGOs run rescue operations off the coast of Italy, looking for migrants whose flimsy boats might have capsized in choppy waters. Generally, these rescue vessels operate for days at a stretch, often conducting various rescues and taking potentially hundreds of people onboard.

Italy’s new law will necessitate captains to return to shore the moment they make even one rescue – with potentially deadly consequences. Riccardo Gatti, who is in charge of a rescue ship run by the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières, told daily la Repubblica on Thursday that the decree was part of a strategy that “increases the risk of death for thousands of people.”

Finding one floating survivor in the sea can be a sign of many more survivors in the vicinity. However, with Italy’s new law, rescue vessels will not be able to carry out further search operations. The new decree also states that the captains must inform the rescued survivors that “they can ask for international protection anywhere in the European Union.”

Captains breaching these rules risk fines of up to 50,000 euros ($53,175), and repeated violations can result in the impoundment of the vessel.

The Italian government’s reasoning

This is not the first time Prime Minister Meloni’s government has targeted sea rescue charities, blaming NGOs for a surge in arrivals and facilitating the work of human traffickers. A document from the office of Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said that rescue vessels acted as a “pull factor” for those making the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean from Libya.

Charities have denied these claims, stating that only a fraction of all immigrants enter Italy on rescue boats and that the presence of these boats does not add to immigrants' motivations to escape conflict or poverty back home.

(With inputs from Reuters)

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