Does Italian law break international shipping rescue rules?

The Italian parliament recently approved the new administration’s law that changes significantly the burdens on rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean, picking up migrants in vessels that are in trouble.

The UN has condemned the move and the humanitarian organizations have questioned whether the new requirements would result in captains having to choose betwee neither breaking Italian law or breaking the law of the high seas.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni has said that maritime migration had become an urgent crisis for Italy. The new law requires humanitarian rescue ships to head to port (a port designated by the Italian government) immediately after each rescue. That means they have to forego additional rescues, even if they are in the vicinity of people in distress.

Previously the SAR vessels had carried out multiple rescue operations over a period of several days, moving their vessel to the nearest Italian port (often in Sicily or deep in the southern part of the Italian mainland) when their rescue vessel was full.

Under the new requirements, crews on board the ships must register every person who is planning to ask for international protection. NGOs that fail to comply with the new rules will be subject to administrative sanctions, fines and the seizure of their vessel.

Amnesty International’s Migration Researcher Matteo de Bellis said that “these measures are clearly designed to hinder NGOs undertaking life-saving search and rescue missions in the central Mediterranean. This is part of an effort to ensure that as many people as possible are instead intercepted by Libyan coastguards and returned to Libya where they face arbitrary detention and torture”.

Italy’s designated ports of disembarkation for people rescued at sea are often several hundreds of miles further away than the Sicilian or southern Italian ports. This requires days of sailing away from the original rescue site. These long journeys, with boats only partially loaded, serves to reduce the amount of “migrant throughput” that each rescue ship can achieve.

Under international law a ship’s captain is required to render immediate assistance to people in distress at sea. But the new Italian law would require a nearby SAR vessel to breach this duty and ignore the distress calls of those at sea, if it had previously rescued migrants on board its ship.

“By complying with this provision, NGOs’ shipmasters would, in fact, fail to fulfil their rescue duties under international law,” said Dunja Mijatovi, according to commissioner for human rights at the NGO umbrella group Council of Europe.

There seems little doubt that the law of the high seas and the Italian law are incompatible, as one of them requires a diversion to make a rescue, while the other requires (without exception) the vessel to head directly to a designated port.