Border Criminologies statement on the Italian decree on search and rescue operations (SAR) at sea

Border Criminologies is an international network of researchers, practitioners, and those who have experienced border controls. Our global expertise lies in research and advocacy around border controls, policing, and immigration detention.

We are writing to express our strong and unwavering opposition to the new Italian decree on search and rescue operations (SAR) at sea (law decree n. 1/2023), also named by advocates as the 'anti-rescue' decree, which was recently approved by the Chamber of Deputies and is now going to be voted by the Senate of the Republic. This is the last step for its conversion into law.

By way of context, in response to people crossing the Mediterranean in search of sanctuary, the European Union and its member states have long favoured unproven and unevidenced claims of deterrence, backing the Libyan coast guard and hampering civil rescue missions. This approach has led to a lamentable number of avoidable deaths, with more than 2,000 people dying across the Mediterranean in 2022 alone, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and with more than 25,000 deaths since records began in 2014. Europe’s response to the situation is also intricately connected to the horrific atrocities unfolding on Libyan soil, including rape, detention, extortion, torture and killings, as well as reports of slave auctions.

Within this wider context, the Italian government most recently passed a new law decree, signed by the Italian President on 2 January 2023, which represents a further step in its systematic efforts of defaming and criminalising non-governmental organisations saving lives at sea.

This decree imposes severe penalties on search and rescue organisations should they not comply with its provisions.  Importantly, it prohibits vessels from carrying out multiple instances of rescue on the same mission, requiring them to immediately request a place of safety after concluding a single rescue operation and to reach it “without delay” (therefore forcing them to ignore any additional cases of distress at sea). This is linked to the government’s recent practice of assigning rescue vessels very distant ports of disembarkation in northern and central Italy, requiring up to four days of navigation, which breaches the obligation to make available the nearest port of safety. Ordering rescue ships to sail to distant ports inevitably prevents them from saving lives in the central Mediterranean for longer periods of time, also forcing them to incur significant additional costs in relation to fuel, food, and other expenses, and can lead to an increase in suffering of survivors on board.

As such, this decree directly targets civil sea rescue organisations and leaves many more at risk of drowning and/or unnecessary suffering. A further aspect introduced by this decree, which has been widely criticised, is that it moreover obliges crew members to collect information from the rescued individuals regarding their intent to apply for international protection, and to share that information with the authorities.

Informed by evidence, and by the expertise of our board and team as leading researchers and practitioners in this area, including people with lived experience of border control, we join the concerns voiced by NGOs engaged in search and rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean sea, that have warned of the risk this measure “will reduce rescue capacities at sea and thereby make the central Mediterranean – one of the world’s deadliest migration routes – even more dangerous”. As organisations such as AOI and ASGI have underlined, some of these new provisions undermine international maritime law, human rights law and the European and domestic legal framework on asylum – and are, therefore, de facto unrealisable. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has also recently expressed serious concerns about this measure.

Based on this evidence, we call for this decree to be voted down. More broadly, we demand an end to the inhumane response of European governments and the European Union to the situation in the Mediterranean. The Italian government, and its counterparts, must urgently comply with international obligations to assist people in distress at sea and ensure that safer routes are provided for individuals seeking safety in Europe.

Signed, Border Criminologies