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23rd Feb 2020

EU mute on new Italian decree to fine NGO boats

  • The EU promised solutions following the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013 (Photo: Flickr - Palazzochigi)

The European Commission has said it will not comment on a new Italian decree to fine NGO boats that rescue migrants at sea until it is officially passed by the government in Rome.

Pressed on whether it opposes sanctions in general on such vessels, the Commission on Wednesday (12 June) also declined to respond.

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That ambiguous position stands in sharp contrast to public declarations made in the aftermath of the October 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, where some 373 men, women, and children drowned off the Italian island.

At the time, the commission announced what it described as "concrete actions" to prevent further loss of life in the Mediterranean.

One of those declared actions included making sure, it said, that "helping migrants in distress will not lead to sanctions of any kind."

It noted, among other things, that shipmasters and merchant vessels "would not face any negative legal consequences for providing such assistance".

Six years later, and people that prevent others from drowning are facing both negative legal consequences, and sanctions that the commission in 2013 declared it opposed.

Among them is boat captain Pia Klemp who could spend up to 20 years in prison after her rescue ship was impounded by Italian authorities in 2017.

Some 84,000 people and counting have since signed a petition for Italy to drop the charges against Klemp.

Around the same time the Italians impounded her ship, the European commission endorsed an Italian code of conduct on sea rescues carried out by NGOs.

Italy then moved to close its ports to humanitarian vessels following the election of the League's Matteo Salvini who was appointed interior minister and deputy prime minister in June 2018.

Despite his pronouncements on the port closures, some NGOs were still able to disembark rescued migrants. In May, the German non-profit Sea-Watch 3 disembarked 65 rescued migrants in Lampedusa.

But Salvini appears resolved to pile on the anti-migrant pressure.

On Tuesday, he praised an emergency decree, passed by the Italian cabinet, to give him the authority to impose fines of up to €50,000 on anyone that transports rescued migrants to ports.

The draft decree still needs to go before the parliament, where it is likely to pass.

'Voluntary guidelines'

The move comes amid stalled EU-level efforts to put forward voluntary guidelines when it comes to disembarking people from NGO boats.

The Romanian EU presidency had initially announced it would publish the guidelines by the end of May but has since been forced to backtrack.

"This political deadlock among European countries and their inability to put lives first, is only more shocking today as fighting continues to rage in Tripoli," Sam Turner, a senior official from Medecins Sans Frontieres, said in a statement on Wednesday.

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