New Migration Decree in Italy Likely to Hinder Search and Rescue Operations

New Migration Decree in Italy Likely to Hinder Search and Rescue Operations
Source: © Cloud Blue Gate, via, November 27, 2014


Felicia Insinger

Europe and Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

On January 2, 2023, a new migration decree was released in Italy’s Official Gazette (G.U. 2023). The decree brings about significant changes for civil organisations engaged in search and rescue (SAR) activities in the central Mediterranean Sea, and, consequently, for the people trying to cross the sea (Médecins Sans Frontières, 2023).

According to Article 1(b) of the decree, ships must immediately go to the port allocated by Italy and reach it “without delay” once they completed one rescue (G.U. 2023, art 1 b). Captains risk fines ranging between 10,000 and 50,000 euros and having their boats impounded for two months if they break the rules (G.U. 2023, art 1 b). In practice, this means that SAR vessels cannot carry out multiple rescues on the same voyage and, therefore, the ships are effectively required to ignore any remaining distressed people at sea. Consequently, fewer people would be rescued in the central Mediterranean Sea (Tranchina, 2023).

Human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch has argued that this rule breaches the duty of captains to give immediate assistance to people in distress, as required under several international law treaties to which Italy is a signatory, and EU law (Tranchina, 2023). Article 98(1)(b) of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, for instance, states that “Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him.  (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982, art 98(1)(b)). And Article 9(1) of the EU’s Regulation No 656/2014 states that “Member States shall observe their obligation to render assistance to any vessel or person in distress at sea […]” (Parliament and Council Regulation 656/2014, 2014, art 9(1)).

Italy’s new migration decree, furthermore, imposes the duty on non-governmental rescue ships to collect data from people onboard, including their intent to claim asylum and share that information with the authorities (G.U. 2023, art 1 b). Human Rights Watch reported it believes this goes against the EU’s Directive 2013/32 on asylum procedures (Tranchina, 2023). The new law follows after the government’s recent practice of assigning rescue boats to distant ports of disembarkation in northern and central Italy (Giuffrida, 2022), which required up to four days of navigation (Cerami, 2022). As pointed out by Human Rights Watch, ordering rescue ships to sail to distant ports prevents them from saving lives, forces them to incur significant additional costs for fuel, food, and other expenses, and can increase the suffering of those on board (Tranchina, 2023).

A group of 17 NGOs released a joint statement expressing their concern over the new law, urging the Italian government to immediately withdraw the decree and calling on all members of the Italian Parliament to oppose it and prevent it from being converted into law (Médecins Sans Frontières, 2023).

According to data from the Italian Ministry of Interior, 105,140 migrants reached Italy in 2022 (Ministero dell’Interno, 2023). Data from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) shows that in 2022, 443 migrants died and 924 disappeared when trying to cross the Central Mediterranean (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2023). 

Sources and Further Reading:

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2023). Dead and Missing at Sea: Mediterranean and Northwest African maritime routes. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Retrieved January 15th, 2023 from 

Médecins Sans Frontières. (January 5, 2023). New decree obstructs lifesaving efforts at sea and will cause more deaths. Médecins Sans Frontières. Retrieved January 15th, 2023 from 

Ministero dell’Interno. (January 9, 2023). Comparazione migranti sbarcati negli anni 2021/2022/2023. Ministero dell’Interno.  Retrieved January 15th, 2023 from 

Cerami, G. (December 27, 2022). Sicuro ma lontano: dopo Genova e Livorno, le Ong vengono dirottate nel porto di Ravenna. Huffington Post. Retrieved January 15th, 2023 from! 

D.L. 23G00001, in G.U. 2 Gennaio 2023, n 1.

Giuffrida, A. (December 30, 2022). Sea rescue charities rebel against Italian anti-immigration rules. The Guardian. Retrieved January 15th, 2023 from 

Parliament and Council Regulation 656/2014 of 15 May 2014 establishing rules for the surveillance of the external sea borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, May 15, 2014, art 9(1). Retrieved January 15th, 2023 from  

Tranchina, G. (January 9, 2023). Italy’s Anti-Rescue Decree Risks Increasing Deaths at Sea. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved January 15th, 2023 from 

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, December 10, 1982, art 98(1)(b).