We’re beasts not humans: Italy’s new law of the sea, By Owei Lakemfa

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Reading Time: 4 mins read

Italy, the beautiful south-central European country that juts into the Mediterranean Sea and embraces the Alps, giving mountainous hugs to Switzerland and France, is one of the earliest human civilizations. So civilized that its animals are protected in the country’s constitution and have fundamental rights such as the right of a dog to be walked out in the streets, at least thrice weekly. Animals kept for farming purposes have the right to food, water, satisfactory environmental conditions and right to free movement.

If animals can be so well regarded how much more humans? However, that is the basic issue. While the Italian state treats its citizens with dignity, it has laws on migrants headed for its shores that states clearly that their lives are not only worth less than that of a dog or rabbit, but that they do not even have a right to life.

In its Piantedosi Act passed on 24 February, if a charity vessel carrying persons rescued at sea comes across a vessel in distress, a shipwreck or persons drowning in the turbulent waters, it must not rescue them. Rather, such a ship must first sail to a designated port, no matter how far, discharge its passengers, do necessary paper work before seeking to return to the disaster scene. The new Italian sea law criminalises multiple sea rescues. The captain or owner of any vessel which breaches the new law is liable to a fine of between €10,000 and €50,000 ($53,355), while the vessel can be impounded for up to two months or even confiscated.

Pathetically, the Italian government claims the new law is to protect immigrants. Its Deputy Interior Minister, Nicola Molteni, told the country’s upper Senate that “if immigration is not controlled, it creates exploitation, forced labour, illegal labour”.

The new law is a fine-tuning of the Italian government’s 2022 policy of blocking humanitarian ships from accessing its ports because it is not the duty of Italy to take in people rescued from the seas.

In implementing the new law and ensuring drowning people are not quickly rescued – if they are rescued at all – the Italian government designates faraway ports for rescue vessels. This not only increases the operational costs of the vessels, but also reduces the time for possible new rescue. Although Italy claims its coast guard rescues vessels in distress, but the complaint is that it is only when a distress vessel reaches the Italian search-and-rescue zone on its own, before the coast guards begin to respond. Even at that, it is not an immediate response as the vessel may be left on its own to tug on to an Italian port before rescue is carried out. Until then, the distressed vessel and its occupants are on their own.

The Italian government’s action against the rescue vessels in the name of stemming migration, is not logical. This is because statistically, the overwhelming number of those migrating to Italy, do not come across the Mediterranean Sea, they come from Eastern Europe. For instance, in 2020, 16 per cent of the migrants came from Romania, 7.6% from Albania, 7.1% from Morocco; Ukrainians accounted for 4% and China for 3.7%. This means that of the bulk 38.4% of migrants, only 7.1% came from Africa and the Middle East.

In 2022, 90% of the 105,000 migrants who arrived in Italy did not come through the vessels; they were migrants mainly from Eastern Europe. Only 10% came over the seas.

So, the new Italian law is primarily designed to make the rescue of human lives in the seas very difficult, expensive and criminal.

The Italian government is already putting its new anti-human law into practice. A German rescue ship, Sea-Eye 4 was heading to the port of Ortona, in the central region of Abruzzo after rescuing 17 persons in the Libyan search-and-rescue zone when it got a distress call. It was from a boat carrying over 400 people. It decided to turn back go to its rescue. The Italian government on 2 June, found the ship guilty of violating the new law, and clamped a 20-day detention on it.

A similar sanction was imposed on a sister rescue vessel, Mare*Go. The 104-year-old, four-metre-long pleasure craft with 36 rescued persons on board, was directed by the Italian authorities to head to the port of Trapani, on the west coast of Sicily to dock. But the vessel warned that it could not cover that distance. So it was sanctioned. The Mare*Go in a reaction said: “This current new law is another tool to let more people on the move drown at sea.”

The Italian government also accused the Geo Barents vessel, owned by the Doctors Without Borders, MSF, of withholding some information after it rescued 48 migrants and ferried them to the Adriatic port of Ancona. For this alleged criminal act, Geo Barents was blocked for 20 days and MSF fined €10,000.

The Italian authorities had apparently been on the lookout for the MSF vessel which had on Tuesday, 24 January rescued 61 persons. However, as it headed for the La Spezia port as instructed by the Italian authorities, it received a distress call and turned back. Then, it received a third distress call from another vessel, thus engaging in three rescue operations and saving 237, including 73, unaccompanied minors, UAMs. It is such spectacular rescues, the new law wants to stop. The Italian state would rather the lives perish at sea than be rescued.

In human history and practice, when a distress ‘Mayday’ call which indicates that that a vessel is in grave danger and needs immediate assistance, goes out, all vessels and humans within the area rush to its rescue as it may be sinking or there is fire on board. It is this sense of oneness and value for human life the Italian government is trying to obliterate.

The new Italian law violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, which makes it obligatory for a ship captain to render immediate assistance to people in distress. Also, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, OLAS, imposes on countries a legal obligation to provide assistance to those in distress, including, if necessary, carrying out multiple rescue operations. This is also part of the European Union law – REGULATION, EU, No 656/2014) – which binds Italy. But who can call Italy to order? It is not listening to the UN, EU, international organisations or the Vatican.

Italy prefers to be lawless and treat human life with the type of levity it does not treat even its animals.

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