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Withdraw NGO-ships decree says Council of Europe

Italian government says Mijatovic's fears are unfounded

02 February, 12:02

    Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic during a visit at a  refugee camp in Bosnia And Herzegovina (archive photo) Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic during a visit at a refugee camp in Bosnia And Herzegovina (archive photo)

    ROME - The Council of Europe said Thursday that its Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic wrote to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi on January 26 asking the Italian government to withdraw its recent decree regulating the activities of NGO-run migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean.

    The Italian government is trying to discourage NGO-run ships, saying their activities encourage small boats carrying asylum seekers to attempt the hazardous crossing from North Africa to Italy.

    Under the decree, NGO-run ships must immediately request the authorities assign them a port of safety after making a rescue, rather than staying at sea to help other people.

    They risk big fines and the impoundment of the ships if they fail to comply.

    The government has also started to allocate ports of safety to NGO ships that are some distance from their position after making the rescues.

    "I am concerned that the application of some of these rules could hinder the provision of life-saving assistance by NGOs in the Central Mediterranean and, therefore, may be at variance with Italy's obligations under human rights and international law," Mijatovic's letter read.

    "The provision prevents NGOs from carrying out multiple rescues at sea, forcing them to ignore other distress calls in the area if they already have rescued persons on board, even when they still have capacity to carry out another rescue.

    "By complying with this provision, NGOs' shipmasters would in fact fail to fulfil their rescue duties under international law.

    "I also note with concern that, in practice, NGO vessels have been assigned distant places of safety, such as ports in Central and Northern Italy.

    "This prolongs the suffering of people saved at sea and unduly delays the provision of adequate assistance to meet their basic needs.

    "It unnecessarily exposes the people onboard to the potential dangers of adverse weather conditions.

    "Prolonged stay onboard tends to lead to the rapid deterioration of the health situation of all involved, and risks exacerbating the condition of vulnerable individuals onboard...

    "Therefore, I call on your government to consider withdrawing the Decree, or alternatively, to accommodate all the necessary changes in the upcoming parliamentary debate to make sure that the text fully complies with Italy's obligations under human rights and international law".

    In its reply, the Italian government said the concerns expressed by Mijatovic were "groundless".

    It said the decree does not stop the NGO ships making more than one rescue, nor does it oblige them to ignore calls for help if they have rescued people on board.

    "What the provision seeks to avoid, on the other hand, is the systemic activity of picking up migrants in the waters in front of the Libyan and Tunisian coasts in order to take them exclusively to Italy, without any form of coordination," the reply said.

    "This conduct, common among the NGOs, is beyond what is envisioned in the international sea-rescue conventions".

    The government added that it had started to assign ports of safety in central and northern Italy to share out the organizational and logistical burden of handling the asylum seekers so that it is not concentrated on Sicily, Calabria and the island of Lampedusa.

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