(London, November 8, 2022) – The government’s refusal Italian to allow approximately 250 people to disembark from two non-governmental rescue ships moored in Catania puts those people at risk and violates Italy’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today; the same applies to the directive requiring rescue vessels to return to international waters.
Over the weekend of November 5-6, 2022, the Italian government allowed the two rescue ships – Humanity 1 (chartered by SOS Humanity) and Geo Barents (chartered by Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) – to temporarily dock at the port of Catania. Following summary assessments of “ vulnerability » ordered by the government by two doctors selected by the authorities, 144 people from Humanity 1 and 357 people from Geo Barents were allowed to disembark; these were mainly women, children and men with physical health problems. One of the men forced to remain on the Humanity 1 then collapsed and was evacuated by ambulance, leaving 34 people on board. The authorities refused to disembark 215 passengers from the Geo Barents. One of them had to be medically evacuated overnight, leaving 214 people on board.
” Government actions cruelly expose victims of abuse in Libya to further potential harm and deprive them of their right to seek asylum, in defiance of Italian and international law “, said Giulia Tranchina, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. ” No one should be deliberately exposed to degrading conditions, and everyone should be allowed to disembark and have their claims for international protection dealt with fairly. »
The evaluations of ” vulnerability were performed by physicians without the assistance of interpreters or psychologists and appear to have been based primarily or solely on physical health assessments. Under these conditions, exhausted survivors would have had a limited ability to provide details about their full health status, mental health issues, or experiences of abuse. Journalists were denied access to the wharf, prompting criticism from the European Federation of Journalists.
Italian authorities have ordered the two rescue ships to leave port with people on board, arguing that the two respective flag states – Germany and Norway – are responsible for those who remain. The captains of both ships refused to follow the directive, and SOS Humanité took legal action against the Italian government to challenge the legality of this policy and allow survivors to exercise their right to disembark and seek asylum.
International refugee rights law, as well as European Union directives and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, guarantee the right to seek asylum and prohibit collective expulsions. Under maritime law, a rescue is considered complete when all those rescued have disembarked promptly to a place of safety. Ships can only be considered safe places temporarily. While there is a doctrine of exclusive flag state jurisdiction on the high seas, ships – and people in them – in port are subject to port state jurisdiction.
Two other rescue ships chartered by non-governmental organizations were waiting in the Mediterranean for the authorities to assign them a port. The Ocean Viking, chartered by SOS Méditerranée, has 234 people on board, while Rise Above, chartered by Mission Lifeline, has 89. They experienced bad weather and high waves. Six people had to be medically evacuated from Rise Above. On the evening of November 7, the Italian authorities finally informed the crew of Rise Above that this ship could dock at the port of Reggio Calabria, but the Ocean Viking was still stuck at sea.
Since October 20, non-governmental rescue ships have rescued around 1,000 people, while in the same period more than 11,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea either independently or as a result of rescues by the Italian Coast Guard. The only people who face problems disembarking are those rescued by non-government ships. Non-governmental rescue ships have brought only 14% of people who have landed in Italy in the past 12 months, and contrary to all efforts by Italian authorities to stigmatize their rescue operations, there is no evidence that non-governmental groups governments “attract” new migrants.
Migrants and asylum seekers should not be trapped at sea for political disputes or leverage in negotiations, Human Rights Watch said. Italy and Malta are the closest coastal states to Libya and have the responsibility to ensure that all those rescued can disembark quickly.
Libya is not a safe country for migrants and asylum seekers, so survivors rescued at sea cannot be legally required to disembark there. A survey conducted by the United Nations concluded in June that there was ” reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity are being committed against migrants in Libya including “murders, enforced disappearances, torture, forms of slavery, sexual violence, rape and other inhumane acts … related to their arbitrary detention”.
At the same time, it is important that the European Union moves towards an effective system of responsibility sharing within the framework of a common European asylum system. The decision by a group of European countries, including Germany and Norway, to set up a voluntary platform in June to relocate asylum seekers from EU coastal states is a positive, if slow, step. More is needed, including at the EU level, Human Rights Watch said.
” Trapping people on ships or stranding them at sea is not serious immigration policy: it’s just inhumane and illegal theater “, concluded Giulia Tranchina. ” Instead of violating people’s rights and disappointing its European partners, Italy should advocate a predictable system of disembarking people and the resumption of European state-led search and rescue operations, alongside a fair system of sharing of responsibilities for migrants and asylum seekers. »