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Press releases Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Italy: Proposed new sea rescue law puts more lives at risk - Türk

16 February 2023

A patrol boat with migrants seen arriving at the port. Nearly 90 migrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, had been rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and taken at the port of Roccella Jonica “Porto Delle Grazie”. A baby, born three days ago during the crossing, a newborn of 11 days, and a baby of five months were also on board. Members of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders and sanitary personnel assisted the babies, their families, and other migrants SOPA Images/Sipa USAValeria Ferraro

GENEVA (16 February 2023) – UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk on Thursday expressed serious concerns about a proposed law in Italy that could hinder the provision of life-saving assistance by humanitarian search and rescue (SAR) organisations in the Central Mediterranean, resulting in more deaths at sea.

“We all watch with horror the plight of those crossing the Mediterranean, and the desire to end that suffering is profound. But this is simply the wrong way to address this humanitarian crisis,” said Türk. “More people in distress will be made to suffer and more lives risk being lost because timely help is not available, if this law is passed.”

“The law would effectively punish both migrants and those who seek to help them. This penalization of humanitarian actions would likely deter human rights and humanitarian organisations from doing their crucial work,” the High Commissioner added.

The proposed law – which was passed by the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament yesterday and is scheduled to be considered by the Senate next week – also requires humanitarian rescue ships to head to port immediately after each rescue, foregoing additional rescues even if they are in the immediate vicinity of people in distress. In the past, SAR vessels have carried out multiple rescue operations over days. At the same time, Italy has recently designated distant ports of disembarkation for people rescued at sea – sometimes days sailing away from the original rescue site – making it all the more difficult for vessels who may seek to conduct multiple rescues.

“Under international law, a captain is duty-bound to render immediate assistance to people in distress at sea, and States must protect the right to life,” said Türk. “But under this new proposal, a nearby SAR vessel would be obliged to ignore the distress calls of those at sea simply by virtue of having already saved others.”

Türk added: “Those left stranded at sea would be forced to endure prolonged exposure to the elements and risk losing their lives. Those who survive face increased delays in accessing adequate medical care and rehabilitation, including for victims of torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations.”

The High Commissioner said the proposed law also risked increased interceptions and returns to Libya – a location the UN Human Rights Office has repeatedly said cannot be considered a safe port of disembarkation.

Under the proposed law, crews on board the ships must register every person who is planning to ask for international protection. Non-governmental organisations that do not comply with the new rules would be subject to administrative sanctions, fines and have their vessel seized.

The High Commissioner urged the Government of Italy to withdraw the proposed law, and to consult civil society groups, in particular search and rescue NGOs, to ensure any proposed legislation complies fully with international human rights law, international refugee law, and other applicable legal frameworks, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.


For more information and media requests, please contact:

In Geneva
Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / [email protected] or
Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]

In Nairobi
Seif Magango - +254 788 343 897 / [email protected]

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