This is the twelfth time since January that the Italian government has immobilized a rescue ship at sea. This Wednesday, November 15, the Ocean Viking, the sea rescue ship of the NGO SOS Méditerranée, was sanctioned with an immobilization of 20 days and a fine of 3300 euros by the Italian authorities. On the night of November 10 to 11 and during the day of the 11th, the ship carried out three rescue operations to rescue 128 migrants. The same ship had already received a 10-day detention in July for safety failures.

In accordance with the decree-law of January 2, 2023, known as the “Piantedosi decree” named after the Minister of the Interior Giorgia Meloni, the ships of humanitarian NGOs which rescue migrants must return to a port designated by the Italian coast guard after every rescue. After rescuing a first boat of 33 migrants off the coast of Libya, the Ocean Viking received the order from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (ITMRCC) to reach the port of Ortona, on the Adriatic coast, to disembark these people.

But in the hours that followed, the ship rescued another group of 34 migrants located in the same area. On November 11, in the afternoon, the Ocean Viking once again rescued a boat in distress with 61 migrants on board in the Libyan zone. SOS Méditerranée denounces this sanction and underlines its “incontestable legal obligation to save people in distress at sea” in a press release. “International law leaves no room for doubt,” underlines the NGO.

What is it really? International maritime law – the SOLAS conventions of 1974, SAR of 1979 and Montego Bay (1982) – obliges anyone in difficulty to be rescued at sea, without discrimination based on nationality or status (migrant or simple navigator). The SAR Convention (for Search and rescue in French) of 1979 divides the international waters of the Mediterranean into several SAR zones devolved to each of the signatory States. The rescues took place in the Libyan zone, but NGOs say Libyan authorities are generally unresponsive. They then turn to the European coast guards, in this case Italian.

It is in this context that the ITMRCC indicated the port of Ortona to the Ocean Viking after the first rescue. The crew then informed them of the nearby presence of a second ship in distress. “The Italian ITMRCC redirected the Ocean Viking to the Libyan JRCC to receive instructions,” the statement said. According to the Ocean Viking’s online logbook, the Italian Coast Guard has indicated that “if the Tripoli JRCC requests assistance from the Ocean Viking in the case of distress, the vessel will be temporarily released from its obligation to head towards Ortona to help them.

With no response from the Libyan authorities, the Ocean Viking then rescued the 34 migrants. “There were no signs of ongoing rescue operations. No other maritime authorities provided information or assistance, despite Ocean Viking’s attempts to coordinate. Thus, the crew was not released from its obligation to provide assistance, defends Luisa Albera, coordinator of search and rescue operations on board.

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The third rescue took place in the afternoon of November 11, while the Ocean Viking was still in the Libyan SAR zone, on the route to Ortona. This time, the Libyan coast guard reportedly responded. But “communication with the JRCC in Tripoli is hampered due to the language barrier,” we can read in the online logbook. “The JRCC responded in Arabic, but international maritime law requires the coordination centers to be able to communicate in English,” explains Sophie Beau, director of SOS Méditerranée France. The crew again turned to the Italian coast guard, then intervened due to lack of instructions from them.

Elected on the promise of stopping illegal immigration, the president of the Italian council Giorgia Meloni strives to hinder the boats of relief NGOs in the Mediterranean, which she described as “pirate ships complicit with smugglers”. The “Piantedosi” decree is one of the measures taken against them, but its compatibility with international maritime law raises questions in this type of situation. Requested by Le Figaro, the Italian Ministry of the Interior did not respond to our requests.

Italy is facing an unprecedented wave of arrivals. Nearly 150,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores since January, compared to nearly 95,000 over the same period last year, according to figures from the Italian Interior Ministry. Only 5% of them were collected by NGO ships before setting foot in Italy, according to Defense Minister Meloni. The latter recently announced an agreement with Albania to open two reception centers there intended solely for migrants rescued at sea by the Italian authorities. This is where asylum requests would be processed, with the aim of preventing migrants from remaining clandestinely in Italy once rejected.