2nd Oct 2023

EU Commission cannot stop Italy banning rescue boats

  • A couple and with their four-year-old daughter are currently among those rescued and onboard the Ocean Viking (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)
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The European Commission says it is powerless to stop Italy from banning charity rescue boats entering its territorial waters.

The statement on Friday (4 November) follows moves by the new government in Rome under Georgia Meloni to further crack down on the Mediterranean Sea rescues.

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  • It follows moves by the new government in Rome under Georgia Meloni to further crack down on the Mediterranean Sea rescues (Photo: Helena Malikova)

Meloni's interior ministry said it is exploring a possible ban on the boats from entering Italian territorial waters based on article 19 of the UN International Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Asked if such a ban is legal under EU law, the commission said it had "no competence to decide which boats can or cannot enter a country's territorial waters."

Asked if the entry ban falls under the scope of EU values, they said "saving lives at sea is a moral duty, as well as a legal obligation for member states under international law."

The comments comes as three charity boats seek to disembark close to 1,000 rescued people.

Among them is the French-based SOS Mediterreanee's Ocean Viking.

The boat rescued 234 people and had sent its first request for a port to disembark on 22 October. With no response yet, the long wait is likely to provoke tensions and fear among those on board, some of whom are small children.

"We are facing an absolute emergency," said Ocean Viking's Nicola Stalla, who described the Italian government blockade as a disgrace.

To date, 20 requests to disembark have been sent, but without response. They are now demanding help from France, Spain and Greece.

Humanity 1, a German flagged vessel, has 179 onboard while the Geo Barents, operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has 572.

The issue has revived calls for an over the summer French EU presidency solidarity pledge to relocate some 10,000 asylum seekers rescued at sea across member states.

The European Commission says the French relocation plan could be used to help the three stranded boats.

"Disembarkment after life-saving operations, yes, this mechanism is dedicated to this," said a European Commission spokesperson, when pressed.

But that relocation plan is moving ahead at a slow place and the relocation pledges by EU states have since been revised to 8,000.

And only 38 people from Italy having been relocated to France and Germany from August to October of this year.

Meanwhile, two days after Meloni was sworn in as the head of the Italian government, her interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, issued a directive against Ocean Viking and Humanity 1.

He claimed the two boats are not in line "with spirit of the European and Italian rules on border security and control and on the fight against illegal immigration."

In an interview with the Corriere della Sera daily newspaper, he also said Italy "cannot take in migrants who are picked up at sea by foreign ships operating without any planned coordination with the authorities."

Italy now wants NGO vessel-flagged states Norway and Germany to take charge of those rescued instead. Norway is the flag state of the Ocean Viking, while Humanity 1 flies the German flag.

For its part, Germany says Italy needs to provide swift assistance to those onboard, noting some 104 unaccompanied minors on Humanity 1.

"Many of them need medical care. We have asked the Italian government to provide help quickly," said the German embassy, in a statement.

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The Ocean Viking operated by SOS Mediterranee is mentally preparing for a new lengthy standoff with Italy's right wing government. Louise Guillaumat, its deputy director of operations, told EUobserver that the ship will soon be heading out to sea.

Paris-Rome spat exposes EU 'solidarity' rift on asylum

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