Italy detains migrant rescue ship, fines charity

Italy’s far-right government is taking legal action against a vessel operated by MSF in the Mediterranean Sea.

People wearing life jackets wait to be transferred onto a ship in the Med Sea
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has been operating to save lives in the Central Mediterranean [Lexie Harrison-Cripps]

Italian authorities have detained and fined a rescue ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), shortly after parliament passed into law a government decree establishing a code of conduct for migrant charity ships.

The rescue ship Geo Barents was placed in administrative detention for 20 days and issued a 10,000 euros ($10.500) fine, the organisation said on Thursday evening.

MSF said in a tweet that Italian authorities entered the vessel on Thursday evening and notified the crew of the disciplinary measures.

“We are assessing what legal actions we can take to challenge what happened,” MSF said.

“It is not acceptable to be punished for saving lives.”

Despite criticism from the United Nations and humanitarian groups that it will imperil lives, Italy’s parliament on Thursday voted in favour of the law whereby ships have to request access to a port and sail to it “without delay” after rescue, as well as disclose detailed information about their activities.

Previously, vessels operated by charities spent several days in the Central Mediterranean and regularly completed multiple rescues before heading to a port.

Captains breaching the regulations risk fines of up to 50,000 euros ($53,355), and repeated violations can result in their vessels being impounded, the law stipulates.

MSF said it was accused of withholding some information about a rescue it completed last week, when the Geo Barents took 48 migrants and refugees to the Adriatic port of Ancona.

A spokesperson for the charity said Thursday’s measures were not linked to a rescue operation concluded last month, which had challenged the government decree requesting charities to complete one rescue at a time.

Rather than head back to port, MSF completed three rescue operations before reaching La Spezia, in the Liguria province of northern Italy. NGOs also complain the government is forcing them to take migrants and refugees to distant northern ports, far from where they carry out the rescues.

The new law is part of a crackdown by right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on NGO rescue vessels, which her government says encourage people to make the perilous trip across the Mediterranean from Northern Africa.

Charities deny this, saying migrants and refugees set to sea regardless of whether rescue boats are in the vicinity.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said earlier this month that Italy’s measures were inadequate. “This is simply the wrong way to address this humanitarian crisis,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Church in Italy last month said the new measures violated international law and should be scrapped.

According to government data, 12,667 people have reached Italy so far this year, more than double the same period of 2022. The missing migrants and refugees project run by the International Organization for Migration says at least 157 people have been reported as missing, presumed dead, in 2023.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies