6th Dec 2023

EU Commission suggests need for new charity rescue boat rules

  • Johansson: 'This current challenge was not thought of when maritime law was first agreed. There is a need for more cooperation between member states, flag states and coastal states and other relevant actors' (Photo: European Union, 2022)
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The European Commission wants to promote talks on possible new international maritime rules on sea-rescues for charity boats.

On Monday (21 November), it told reporters discussions are needed with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN agency that regulates shipping.

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  • A six-year old girl being rescued by the Ocean Viking charity rescue vessel, in summer of 2021 (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

"We have no concrete proposal and it's not really the role of the commission to have that either," EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, told reporters.

Yet a five-page document, also published on Monday by the commission, says the IMO talks are needed to create a "specific framework and guidelines" for NGO boats rescuing people and bringing them to European shores.

Johansson was unable to respond when asked if this means possibly removing the 'closest port of safety' from the international maritime rulebook.

Instead, she noted that around 90,000 people crossed the central Mediterranean this year, a 50-percent increase when compared to 2021.

She said most of those taking boats from Libya were predominantly from Egypt, Tunisia and Bangladesh and unlikely to be in need of international protection.

Some 15 percent of those 90,000 were brought to Italy by NGO ships, according to the International Organization for Migration and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The rest were rescued by the Italian coastguard or by some other means.

Johansson still insisted on the need for IMO talks given the latest row between France and Italy over SOS Mediterranee's Ocean Viking, which was this month forced to disembark some 230 people in Toulon in France, after Rome ignored 42 requests for a port.

"The situation today with the private vessels operating at sea is a scenario which still lacks sufficient clarity," she said.

"This current challenge was not thought of when maritime law was first agreed. There is a need for more cooperation between member states, flag states and coastal states and other relevant actors," she said.

The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) was set up in 1979.

It says a place of safety is one where a person's "safety of life is no longer threatened" and where basic human needs, like food, shelter and water, can be met.

But Italy under the far right leadership of its prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, contests that interpretation and said flag states have to take in migrants rescued by charity boats.

In late October, Italy's interior minister Matteo Piantedosi announced they would slap a territorial water entry ban on NGO boats.

It says the ban is based on article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which states arriving ships must not be "prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state".

But some legal scholars contest it, including Luca Masera, a professor at University of Bresvia and a member of Italy's Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).

"The decision of the Italian government is in contrast with the international law of the sea, as the Italian Supreme Court has already stated in relation to the same practices used when [Matteo] Salvini was interior minister," he said, in an email, earlier this month.

France has since announced it will no longer take in 3,500 migrants from Italy under a so-called EU solidarity mechanism.

The mechanism was set up under the aegis of the French EU presidency over the summer and includes some 8,000 pledges spread over a dozen EU states.

But only around 100 have so far been relocated, a figure that Johansson on Monday said had to be increased.

"It's clear we need to step up on implementation," she said.

EU interior ministers on Friday will discussing the row between France and Italy, as well as how to further prevent departures from Libya.

Those talks will feed into another meeting among EU interior ministers set for 8 December, followed by the launch of a so-called "Team Europe initiative on the Central Mediterranean" on 12 December.

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