The UN voiced concern yesterday over a law approved by Italy’s parliament that imposes stiffer penalties on NGO migrant rescue boats in the Mediterranean, demanding humanitarian work “not be criminalised or stigmatised”.
The European Commission will analyse Italy’s new bill and “verify its compatibility with EU law”, spokesman Carlos Ruiz de Gordejuela said in Brussels yesterday.
If the commission decides that a member state has violated European Union law, it can launch a procedure that may culminate in referral to the European Court of Justice.
The text adopted by Italian lawmakers gives far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini more authority to block ships carrying rescued migrants from entering Italian waters.
NGO boats involved in search and rescue operations can be confiscated and captains fined up to €1mn ($1.1mn), according to the text which still must be signed by Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
“NGOs play an invaluable role in saving the lives of refugees and migrants attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Europe,” UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said at a press briefing yesterday in Geneva.
“Imposing financial or other penalties on shipmasters could deter or impede sea rescue activities,” he added, pointing out that European governments have largely stopped their rescue efforts in the central Mediterranean route that mainly runs between Libya and Italy.
Rescue NGOs have continued to take to the seas to save lives despite a refusal by European ports to accept migrants.
The UNHCR also said rescue boats must not be redirected back to Libya, a key launching point for migrant vessels headed to Europe, given “the extremely volatile security situation in the country”.
“Widespread reports of human rights violations and routine use of arbitrary detention for people disembarked back to Libya underline the fact that it is not a viable place of safety,” the UNHCR said.
Some 580 migrants have already died along the central Mediterranean route so far this year, according to figures released yesterday by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
European charities Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee launched a new migrant rescue boat on Sunday, eight months after their previous vessel was forced to cease operations due to pressure from Italy’s right-wing government.