The Italian government has introduced a new security decree that would mean non-governmental organisation (NGO) rescue boats that bring migrants to Italy without permission could face fines of up to €50،000، according to The Guardian.
On Friday night the Italian president، Sergio Mattarella، signed a bill on security and immigration drafted by Matteo Salvini، the far-right interior minister and leader of the Northern League party، which has been described by aid groups as a “declaration of war against the NGOs who are saving lives at sea”.
The new decree reinforces the powers of the ministry of the interior onimmigration and aims to put an end to NGO rescue missions in the central Mediterranean.
“We want certain behaviour to be a bit more transparent on the part of the NGOs too، I don’t want to lay it on but we are asking for greater transparency،’’ said the prime minister، Giuseppe Conte.
Italy’s populist government has repeatedly declared Italian waters closed to NGO rescue vessels. Several boats have been left stranded at sea because of this hardline approach، as at least 1،150 migrants have died in a year as they attempt to reach Italy from Libya.
On Wednesday، the United Nations refugee agency، UNHCR، called on the Italian government to “reconsider” the bill saying “it would penalise rescues at sea” and urged Rome “to revise the decree and… to amend it، putting the protection of refugees and the saving of human lives at the centre”.
After the president signed it، the bill is now already in force. However، the parliament has 60 days to withdraw it، although this is unlikely.
“The new decree is threatening legal principles and the duty of saving lives،” said Claudia Lodesani، president of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Italy. “It is like fining ambulances for carrying patients to the hospital.”
The risk of migrants and refugees becoming shipwrecked and dying at sea is the highest it has ever been due to a lack of NGO rescue ships and the conflict in Libya hastening departures at an alarming rate، the UN has warned.
According to data from UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration، 1،940 people have reached Italy from north Africa since the beginning of 2019، and almost 350 have died en route – putting the death rate for those crossing at more than 15%.
“If we do not intervene soon، there will be a sea of blood،” said Carlotta Sami، the spokeswoman for UNHCR.
With sea conditions currently favourable، thousands of people are preparing to leave Libya as the country remains volatile and without a cohesive government. The situation has been aggravated recently by floods caused by heavy rain. Without rescue boats، the number of shipwrecks is likely to rise dramatically.
Of the 10 NGO rescue boats that were active in the Mediterranean، only one operated by the German organisation Sea-Watch remains.
On Wednesday this week، Libyan authorities allocated Tripoli as a safe port for the disembarkation of 53 people rescued by Sea-Watch the previous day. Sea-Watch declined the offer and headed to Lampedusa with the rescued onboard.
“Libya is not a safe country،’’ said Giorgia Linardi، a spokeswoman for Sea-Watch in Italy. “Forcibly taking rescued people back to a war-torn country، having them imprisoned and tortured، is a crime that we will never commit.’’
Under the freshly approved decree، Sea-Watch، which on several occasions has sought to challenge Salvini’s policy of closing Italy’s ports to NGO boats، could be the first vessel to be fined €50،000.
“I have just signed a document to apply the new security on their vessel،” Salvini wrote on Saturday. “We are witnessing the umpteenth show. They say they are good، but they are kidnapping women and children in the middle of the sea. #closedports for them!”
In the first draft of the new bill، Salvini initially proposed fines for NGOs “from €3،500 to €5،500 for each transported foreigner”. But the proposal was eventually revised following criticism by several MPs.
The new bill follows another controversial security decree approved by the Italian parliament in December 2018 targeting asylum rights. The rules left hundreds in legal limbo by removing humanitarian protection for those not eligible for refugee status but otherwise unable to return home and were applied by several Italian cities soon after its approval.