IThe new far-right Taly government has enacted its controversial new anti-migration plan, which provides for the refoulement of mostly adult male asylum seekers rescued in the central Mediterranean who Rome does not deem qualified for international protection.
The decision sparked a row in the country and provoked protests from jurists, lawyers and charities who see it as a violation of international law on rescue at sea.
The first test of migration policy under the new Prime Minister of the country, Giorgia Meloni, leader of a party of neo-fascist origin which said once Rome is expected to ‘repatriate migrants and sink the boats that rescued them’, came on Saturday when Humanity 1, a rescue ship run by German NGO SOS Humanity, was allowed to enter the port of Catania in Sicily with 179 passengers on board.
Italian authorities have started disembarking children and the sick: 144 passengers have been transferred to a reception center while the others, all men over the age of 18, have been left on the ship and risk being pushed back in international waters.
The new Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Piantedosi, defined these people as “residual cargo”or men who do not need to be rescued.
On Sunday, after a quick inspection of the rescue boat Geo Barents, run by Médecins Sans Frontières and carrying 568 asylum seekers, 217 people remained on the ship. Volunteers reported people sleeping on the decks, as infections causing fever and scabies spread.
But on Tuesday all remaining migrants on the Geo Barents were cleared to disembark due to their physical and psychological condition. MSF team leader Riccardo Gatti said some had had “serious skin infections…not to mention psychological problems, many of them having had panic attacks. Three people have already jumped overboard.
More than 30 of the 35 migrants still on board Humanity 1 began refusing food and water on Tuesday.
“Everyone has the right to disembark and we expect everyone to do so,” said Wasil Schauseil, spokesperson for SOS Humanité. “We don’t think that’s valid under international law.”
French charity SOS Méditerranée said on Tuesday its rescue vessel Ocean Viking, which was off Sicily, was heading for a French port after Italy refused to board the 234 people.
Italy’s migration policy is reminiscent of the showdown orchestrated by the former interior minister Matteo Salvininow Minister of Infrastructure for Meloni, during his tenure as Minister of the Interior in 2018-19.
However, while Salvini closed the ports to NGOs, often forcing boats to stay several miles from the coast, the Meloni government’s strategy aims, on the one hand, to please the EU by providing aid to the most vulnerable and, on the other hand, on the other hand, to block people whom they do not consider eligible for international protection, to please a part of their constituency which voted for them.
Magistratura Democratica, an independent Italian association of judges and prosecutors, said in a statement that Italy’s decision violated international law and called on the government for the “immediate disembarkation of all the people”.
“The survivors are on Italian territory and fall under its jurisdiction,” said Omer Shatz, lecturer in international law at Sciences Po and legal director of Front-Lex, an organization that challenges EU migration policies. “Preventing the disembarkation, let alone the deportation, of those on board would constitute a serious violation of Italy’s obligations under customary and treaty law of human rights, refugee and maritime law.
Italy ordered Humanity 1 to leave the port of Catania on Sunday, but the captain refused to comply until all survivors had disembarked.
“We supported the captain’s decision,” said Alessandro Gamberini, lawyer for SOS Humanité. “If he leaves port, he will be the one to break international maritime salvage laws.”
The Italian government is trying to enforce an interpretation of the European Dublin Regulation, which states that asylum seekers must stay in the first European country they enter.
Piantedosi argues that when the asylum seekers set foot on the German-flagged Humanity 1, they set foot in Germany and therefore Berlin should look after them. The Italian Interior Ministry has defined NGO ships as islands under the jurisdiction of the flag countries.
Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, a former professor of asylum law at the University of Palermo, said the law does not work that way. “Once a ship enters port, the ship and those on board are subject to the jurisdiction of the coastal state. In theory, their interpretation would make sense if the vessels were in international waters and the flag states accepted that choice. But this is not the case.
“Italy exercised effective control and state jurisdiction over the survivors based on its own actions,” Shatz said. “Once Italy invites the ship to dock in its port, it can no longer distinguish between the survivors, who are all subject to its jurisdiction.”
Some legal experts have suggested that Italy’s plan could bounce back to Rome and that letting only some of the migrants disembark while pushing back others could be prosecuted.
Salvini faces charges of kidnapping asylum seekers when, as interior minister in August 2019, he stopped 147 people aboard the The landing ship of the NGO Open Arms. Piantedosi was his chief of staff and was initially investigated over the incident before the charges were dropped.
Salvini maintained that he was protecting the country and alleged that the presence of the humanitarian boats encouraged the smugglers.
According to official statistics, boats run by humanitarians account for only 15% of all such arrivals in the country, with the rest reaching Italian shores on their own in fishing boats.