“Saving all lives, on land and at sea, is possible and it is our duty.”
Two days ago, on April 7, the Italian ministries of transport, health, interior, and foreign affairs issued an urgent decree¹ claiming that Italy, due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, would not be able to provide the ‘places of safety’ obligatory under international law for the disembarkation of persons rescued from distress at sea. A joint statement of four NGOs engaged in search and rescue in the Mediterranean Sea:
The NGOs Sea-Watch, Doctors Without Borders, Open Arms and Mediterranea express their concern over the Italian government’s decision to instrumentalize the current medical emergency in order to close its ports to people rescued at sea by foreign-flagged ships. This measure appears to target, once again, civil society’s search and rescue vessels.
With the sole purpose of stopping search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean – and without providing alternatives to save the lives of those fleeing Libya – Italy has, by decree, deprived its harbors of the connotation of “place of safety”, which is attributed to all European ports. In doing so, Italy is equating itself with countries at war or where fundamental human rights are not granted. At the same time, an arbitrary selection of vessels is established which are denied access to Italian territory.
Many different solutions could have been found in order to combine the need to protect the health of everyone on land with the duty of rescuing lives at sea. Instead, rescue vessels are being put on the same level as cruise ships.²
At a time when Italy is calling for solidarity in its fight against Covid-19 and receiving support from its international partners as well as from NGOs, the government should show the same kind of solidarity to vulnerable people risking their lives at sea because they have no alternative.
None of the organisations signing this statement are currently at sea with their vessels since, in order to comply with Covid-19 prevention and response measures, they are reorganizing their assets and operations.
We are deeply aware of the emergency we are all facing and, as the government knows, all signing organizations have made their resources and staff available to the Italian health system, in order to provide support in this tragic situation.
Although we are not, one humanitarian ship is out at sea: Flying a foreign flag and hence targeted by the new decree, the ‘Alan Kurdi’ is sailing with 150 shipwreck survivors on board, including a pregnant woman. The current health emergency does not absolve us from the obligation to find a dignified solution for them as soon as possible.
This decree instrumentalizes the Covid-19 health emergency to carry on a plan to obstruct search rescue activities at sea. However, in such difficult times, it is all the more necessary for European countries to uphold their joint responsibilities and comply with their lifesaving obligations.
Just like the ‘Sicurezza Bis’ decree of former interior minister Salvini, this decree classifies foreign ships carrying shipwreck survivors from the central Med as a threat. It implicitly refers them, once again, to Libya’s responsibility or to disembarkations in distant countries, which would both constitute breaches of international law.
In these difficult days, empathy and solidarity towards others – especially towards those who are fighting to stay alive and those who have lost loved ones – have allowed us all to stay strong and persevere. For this reason, the suffering of citizens affected by this health emergency cannot be instrumentalized in order to deny necessary and legally mandatory support to those who may not stop breathing on an intensive care bed but are drowning in the sea.
All lives must be saved. All vulnerable people must be protected, on the ground as well as at sea. It is possible and it is our duty.
¹ Note of the Italian transport ministry on the new decree:
² As part of the Covid-19 emergency regulation,the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport had issued an earlier decree on 20th March, setting guidelines and forbidding the entry into ports of foreign flag vessels engaged in cruise services (http://www.mit.gov.it/sites/default/files/media/notizia/2020-03/decreto%20125%2019mar20.pdf). However, the equation of tourism and maritime rescue and their respective necessities to enter Italian ports is obviously inappropriate.