Civil fleet: over a year of operation time lost!

In Decke gehüllter Geretteter blickt aus der Humanity 1 auf das stürmische Mittelmeer.
Laurin Schmid / SOS Humanity

In conjunction with the new law which it passed in January 2023, the far right-wing Italian government has been systematically assigning  distant ports for disembarkation to rescue ships for over a year, in order to actively hinder their work. As this clearly violates EU and international law, in April 2023 we filed a lawsuit at the civil court in Rome together with other NGOs and submitted a complaint to the EU Commission in July 2023. Our new data analysis show the extent of the obstruction: in 2023 alone, rescue ships lost more than a year of operation time in total.

Since our rescue ship Humanity 1 started operating at sea in August 2022, we have only once been able to disembark survivors at a nearby port in Sicily. This is no coincidence, but a political tactic. Instead of assigning a close port of safety, as required by maritime law, Italy sends non-governmental rescue ships systematically to ports in the north and/or east of Italy that are far away from the area of operation. The journey there, which takes several days, means a huge physical and psychological burden for the survivors, who have often been in mortal danger at sea for days and have fled from human rights violations. It also creates additional costs for us as search and rescue organisations due to the higher consumption of supplies and fuel. Moreover, it means less time in the area of operation and therefore more deaths in the central Mediterranean.

Unequal conditions for civil fleet and coast guard

This practice is also linked to the new Italian law (‘Piantedosi Decree’) that came into force in 2023, which stipulates, among other things, that non-governmental rescue ships must immediately sail to the assigned port after the first rescue and thus leave the area where most maritime emergencies occur, even if there are open distress cases in the vicinity. If NGOs do not comply, they face fines of up to 50,000 Euros as well as the detention and ultimately confiscation of their rescue ships. In many cases, non-governmental rescue ships were detained last year because they were unable to sail to the ports assigned without jeopardising the safety of those rescued on board.

The ships of the Italian Coast Guard, on the other hand, continue to bring people rescued from distress at sea ashore at nearby ports. The practice of assigning distant ports is aimed solely at non-governmental rescue ships. This means that smaller rescue ships can no longer dock in Lampedusa, while large rescue ships such as the Humanity 1 are prevented from disembarking survivors in nearby Sicily.

  • year
  • number of distant ports
  • disembarkation at distant ports
  • extra kilometres
  • days lost

Three and a half times around the world

For the civil fleet this amounted to a total loss of 374 days of operation in the world’s most dangerous migration route. For over a year, rescue ships were forced to sail to and from distant ports instead of saving lives. The ships travelled more than 150,538 kilometres on unnecessarily long routes – that is more than three and a half times around the world! The political practice of assigning distant ports thus represents a new low in the obstruction of the life-saving work of search and rescue NGOs.

The port of Brindisi, in the east of Italy, was the most frequently assigned (10 disembarkations), leading to 618 additional kilometres compared to the closer Sicilian port of Pozzallo. It is followed by Civitavecchia, 834 kilometres away, and Bari, which represents 728 additional kilometres (9 disembarkations each). Italy’s northernmost ports, Genoa and Ravenna, were also repeatedly assigned for disembarkation of people rescued from distress at sea.

Click through the following map to see which other ports were assigned how many extra days and kilometres this meant for the civil fleet (ADP = ‘assigned distant port):

Distant ports

Leeres weißes Boot auf dem blauen Meer.
Danilo Campailla / SOS Humanity
Calculation of data

To calculate how many extra kilometres and how many days the civil fleet lost due to the assignment of distant ports, Lampedusa, for smaller ships (Astral, Aurora, Louise Michel, Mare*Go, Nadir, Rise Above, Trotamar III), and Pozzallo, for larger ships with more facilities (e.g. toilets) (Aita Mari, Geo Barents, Humanity 1, Life Support, Mare Jonio, Ocean Viking, Open Arms, Open Arms Uno, ResQ-People, Sea-Eye 4, Sea Punk 1) were used as reference ports.

These ports are located close to the area of operation and are appropriate given the equipment and capacities of the rescue  ships. The distance between the respective reference ports and the actual distant ports that were assigned was then calculated. Taking into account the average speeds of the different rescue vessels, the additional time it took to reach the distant port instead of a nearby port was calculated for each vessel.

The systematic assignment of distant ports is a clear violation of international maritime law, according to which the responsible coastal states, Italy and Malta, must coordinate and assign a place of safety in the immediate vicinity of the rescue ship in order to enable the disembarkation of survivors in a safe place as quickly as possible. At the place of safety, the lives of those rescued should no longer be in danger, their basic needs such as food, shelter and medical care must be met and it must be possible for them to continue their journey. (More in our position papers)

Unsustainable arguments

The Italian government justifies its failure to comply with these international requirements in the case of non-governmental rescue ships by citing overstretched reception capacities in the south of the country. However, on closer inspection, these arguments turn out to be far-fetched: civil rescue ships only brought ashore around 8% of the people reaching Italy by sea in 2023. Most of the rescues were carried out by the Italian coastguard near the coast – and the people rescued were then brought to Lampedusa by the coastguard. There would also be more effective and appropriate ways of taking into account and balancing reception capacities, such as distributing rescued people from Lampedusa to other regions by ferry. In principle, Italy is obliged under EU law to accommodate asylum seekers in a humane manner and to conduct asylum procedures in accordance with the rule of law.

Italy’s systematic assignment of distant ports for non-governmental rescue ships is contrary to international law, and the long transit times on board rescue ships pose a disproportionate risk to the survivors and violate their fundamental rights. In addition, the practice of assigning distant ports constitutes an unjustified obstruction of humanitarian aid provided by non-governmental organisations. 2023 was the deadliest year in the central Mediterranean since 2017 – around 2,500 people lost their lives – and the number of unreported deaths is significantly higher. Every rescue ship is urgently needed.

We call for an immediate end to the obstruction and criminalisation of search and rescue NGOs. Instead, the EU and its member states must ensure that non-governmental search and rescue can take place without restriction!



© Interactive map: Fabian Stricker,

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SOS Humanity e.V.

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