New decree obstructs lifesaving efforts at sea and will cause more deaths

06 Jan 2023

We, civil organisations engaged in search and rescue (SAR) activities in the central Mediterranean Sea, express our gravest concerns regarding the latest attempt by a European government to obstruct assistance to people in distress at sea.

Geo Geo Barents

The Geo Geo Barents' two search and rescue teams are coordinating during a RHIB ( rigid-hull inflatable boat ) training in order to be ready for the rescues, the 11th November 2021. © Virginie Nguyen Hoang/HUMA

A new law decree, signed by the Italian President on 2 January 2023, will reduce rescue capacities at sea and thereby make the central Mediterranean, one of the world’s deadliest migration routes, even more dangerous. The decree ostensibly targets SAR NGOs, but the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the central Mediterranean and finding themselves in situations of distress.

Since 2014, civilian rescue ships are filling the void that European States have deliberately left after discontinuing their state-led SAR operations. NGOs have played an essential role in filling this gap and preventing more lives being lost at sea, while consistently upholding applicable law.

Despite this, EU Member States – most prominently Italy – have for years attempted to obstruct civilian SAR activities through defamation, administrative harassment and criminalising NGOs and activists.

Geo Barents

28 August: The Geo Barents fourth rescue in less than 48 hours. The Alarm Phone informed the MSF search and rescue team of a rubber boat in distress with 79 people, including 32 minors. © Michela Rizzotti/MSF

There already exists a comprehensive legal framework for SAR, namely the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention). However, the Italian Government has introduced yet another set of rules for civilian SAR vessels, which impede rescue operations and put people who are in distress at sea further at risk.

Among other rules, the Italian Government requires civilian rescue ships to immediately head to Italy after each rescue. This delays further lifesaving operations, as ships usually carry out multiple rescues over the course of several days. Instructing SAR NGOs to proceed immediately to a port, while other people are in distress at sea, contradicts the captain’s obligation to render immediate assistance to people in distress, as enshrined in the UNCLOS.

This element of the decree is compounded by the Italian Government’s recent policy to assign ‘distant ports’ more frequently, which can be up to four days of navigation from a ship’s current location.

Both factors are designed to keep SAR vessels out of the rescue area for prolonged periods and reduce their ability to assist people in distress. NGOs are already overstretched due to the absence of a state-run SAR operation, and the decreased presence of rescue ships will inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea.

MSF team

On Thursday 28 July, while the MSF team was heading back to the Maltese search and rescue zone, two alerts by the Alarm Phone were received for two fibreglass boats in distress. A total of 63 people, including 12 minors, were rescued. © Rahul Dhankani/MSF

Another issue raised by the decree is the obligation to collect data aboard rescue vessels from survivors, which articulates their intent to apply for international protection, and to share this information with authorities. It is the duty of states to initiate this process and a private vessel is not an appropriate place for this.

Asylum requests should be dealt with on dry land only, after disembarkation to a place of safety, and only once immediate needs are covered, as recently clarified by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Overall, the Italian law decree contradicts international maritime, human rights and European law, and should therefore trigger a strong reaction by the European Commission, the European Parliament, European Member States and institutions.

We, civil organisations engaged in SAR operations in the central Mediterranean, urge the Italian Government to immediately withdraw its newly issued law decree. We also call on all Members of the Italian Parliament to oppose the decree, thereby preventing it from being converted into law.

What we need is not another politically motivated framework obstructing lifesaving SAR activities, but for EU Member States to finally comply with existing international and maritime laws as well as guarantee the operational space for civil SAR actors.


Signing SAR organisations: EMERGENCY, Luventa Crew, Mare Liberum, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), MEDITERRANEA Saving Humans, MISSION LIFELINE, Open Arms, r42-sailtraining, ResQ - People Saving People, RESQSHIP, Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario, SARAH-SEENOTRETTUNG, Sea Punks, Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch, SOS Humanity, United4Rescue, Watch the Med - Alarm Phone.

Co-signing organisations: Borderline-Europe, Menschenrechte ohne Grenzen e.V. Human Rights at Sea.