A move by Italian lawmakers to impose fines of up to €1 million on vessels and organisations carrying out search and rescue operations off the country’s coast brought a new UN warning that the measure risks deterring lifesaving efforts in the Mediterranean.
Speaking in Geneva, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said the legislative move came at a time when other European countries had largely stopped sea rescue activities.
“Under changes approved by Parliament, fines for private vessels that undertake rescue of people and do not respect the ban on entry into territorial waters, have risen to a maximum of €1 million. In addition, vessels will now be automatically impounded.”
To date this year, nearly 4 000 people have made the crossing to Europe via the so-called Central Mediterranean Route from North Africa to Italy, Yaxley said – nearly 80% less than in the first seven months last year.
The UNHCR warning coincided with a report that 20 people are believed to have died in recent days after making the same boat journey.
The alert was raised on Monday by survivors who reached the Italian island Lampedusa, according to the UN Migration Agency (IOM).
“There were 49 migrants who arrived in Lampedusa by sea late Monday,” spokesperson Joel Millman told journalists. “They apparently were not escorted by any official authority or any kind of rescue NGO vessel. We understand 46 of the 49 came from Côte d’Ivoire, survivors reported 20 people aboard when they left Africa, perished.”
On Tuesday, IOM reported “several tragedies” in the Mediterranean recently. In one incident, an estimated 150 people died in a shipwreck off Libya near Al Khums, on 25 July. Fishermen rescued more than 130 survivors who were returned to shore by the Libyan Coast Guard, Millman said.
Amid ongoing clashes in and around Tripoli, instigated by self-styled Libyan National Army forces of General Khalifa Haftar, head of a parallel administration in Benghazi, UNHCR insisted no rescue vessel should be ordered to hand survivors to the Libyan authorities.
“The volatile security situation, ongoing conflict, widespread reports of human rights violations and routine use of arbitrary detention underline Libya is not a viable place of safety,” Yaxley said.
“NGOs play an invaluable role in saving refugee and migrant lives,” he said. “Their commitment and humanity should not be criminalised or stigmatised.”