Wednesday April 17, 2024

Europe’s top rights body slams Italy over migrant charity ships

December 15, 2023

ROME: The Council of Europe, the continent´s top rights body, on Thursday condemned Italy´s “criminalisation” of charity migrant rescue vessels and voiced alarm over Rome´s cooperation with Libya and Tunisia on migrants.

Italy is a frontline country for migration to Europe and Giorgia Meloni´s hard-right government has taken numerous measures to restrict the activities of charity ships that save people attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa.

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe´s Commissioner for Human Rights. — AFP File
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe´s Commissioner for Human Rights. — AFP File

In February, the Italian parliament approved a government decree that limits the ships to one rescue at a time, requiring them to sail immediately to assigned ports, which are often far away.

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe´s Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Italy “to repeal policies and to end practices that hinder NGO search and rescue operations at sea”. Charities “continue to be targeted in political debate and are the object of smear campaigns”, seizures and criminal investigations, “the overwhelming majority” of which are dismissed at the preliminary stage, she said in a report.

Italian authorities detained six charity rescue vessels in the first nine months of 2023 for breaking the decree rules, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which runs one of the ships.

The vessels were immobilised for a total of 160 days -- over five months, it said in November. The practice of assigning distant ports forced the MSF ship, the Geo Barents, to travel an extra 28,000 kilometres (17,400 miles), amounting to about 70 days of navigation.

“The criminalisation of (the charity ships´) activities goes against Italy´s obligations under international law” and “the practice of assigning distant places of safety is hampering the provision of life-saving assistance”, Mijatovic said.

Rome works closely with the Libyan and Tunisian coastguards, providing funding and training to enable them to intercept and return to shore people attempting to leave, despite questions over those countries´ human rights standards and treatment of migrants.