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Social and Human Rights

Italy intensifies crackdown on civilian search and rescue ships

Abstract: The article focuses on the recent and increasing repressive actions by the Italian state against the so-called civil fleet, which monitors and rescues shipwrecked people in the Central Mediterranean migration route. In particular, it refers to the blockade and preventive detention of three NGO ships – Humanity 1, Sea-Watch 5 and Sea-Eye 4 – enabled by the so-called Piantedosi law, which will block the vessels for a total of 100 days. 

by Giovanni Marenda

Over the past week, the Italian government, using the so-called Piantedosi Law, has blocked three ships of the civilian rescue fleet of German-flagged NGOs. On the basis of false accusations, Humanity 1, Sea-Watch 5 and Sea-Eye 4 are being prevented from carrying out their monitoring and life-saving activities in the Mediterranean Sea, at a time when shipwrecks and people dying adrift not being rescued are continuing relentlessly*.

For the first time, Italian authorities have detained one of the ships, Sea-Eye 4, for 60 days, marking a further escalation of repressive actions against the civilian fleet. Together with the 20-day detention ordered for Sea-Watch 5 and Humanity 1, the relief ships will remain stuck in ports and prevented from returning to the Mediterranean for a total of 100 days.

In their last missions, the three humanitarian ships had rescued in total more than 390 people. All three ships are part of the United4Rescue alliance, supported by the German Protestant Church and more than 900 partners.

Since January 2023, nine ships from the civilian fleet have been detained, with the total number of custodies ordered by Italian authorities in recent years reaching the considerable figure of 19.

The three organizations say that each of the three current preventive detentions is based on false accusations and unlawful claims, as the Italian authorities have accused them of uncooperative behavior toward the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, i.e., not letting the Libyans carrying out yet one more capture and push-back.

“All detentions” – the NGOs point out – “were preceded by attempts by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to force people in distress at sea back to Libya in violation of international law. In two cases – Humanity 1 and Sea-Eye 4 – the crews were threatened [by the Libyan coastguards] with weapons. A 17-year-old boy died on board the Sea-Watch 5 after all coastal states refused a medical evacuation.”

Italy is trying by all means to stop the humanitarian operations of sea rescue organizations. The detentions are an act of political violence against tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean to seek protection in Europe. We are fighting this with all legal means at our disposal, because in addition to the detentions, our rescue ship is even threatened with permanent confiscation,” says Gorden Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye e.V.

Cooperation with the so-called Libyan coast guard in illegal push-backs to Libya – they explain – violates international human rights and refugee law, as well as maritime law. Libya is not a safe place for people rescued at sea, as was recently confirmed once again by the Supreme Court. At the same time, by supporting the so-called Libyan coast guard, the European Union and its member states are complicit in the most serious human rights violations at sea and in Libyan detention centers.

“This escalation represents a new level of criminalisation of civil sea rescue by Italy! The aim is to impede the work of the rescue organizations by any means possible. Yet every day of the detention costs human lives. We are deeply concerned about this development and as United4Rescue we stand behind every single ship with our alliance of over 900 organizations. Together we demand the immediate release of the ships!”, states Sandra Bils, board member of United4Rescue, who decided to promote the #Freethefleet campaign. 

SOS Humanity, Sea-Watch and Sea-Eye finally announced that they are taking legal action against the illegal detention of their rescue ships. The infamous Piantedosi Decree-Law, under which the ships are detained, in addition to banning multiple rescues and assigning increasingly distant landing ports, also provides for the seizure of civilian rescue ships in case of repeated detentions.


 * Since the beginning of the year, the death toll has reached 300 according to recorded events, but it could be many more: see Missing Migrants Project.