In order to hinder the work of non-governmental search and rescue organisations, the Italian government has been assigning NGO ships to distant ports for the disembarkation of survivors since December 2022. For example, the rescue ship Humanity 1, with 64 rescued people on board, was assigned the port Marina di Carrara yesterday, 1,200 km and at least three days’ journey away from the rescue site. For the first time, current data analyses by SOS Humanity show the full extent of the obstruction: in 2023 alone, NGO-rescue ships lost 374 days on which they were unable to perform rescues.
Since Humanity 1 began its mission in August 2022, only once the rescue ship has been able to bring people rescued from distress at sea to a nearby port in Sicily, out of a total of 36 rescues. “The assignment of distant ports for the disembarkation of vulnerable survivors is systematic and a political tactic – with deadly consequences,” criticises Mirka Schäfer, political spokesperson for SOS Humanity. “With this practice, the Italian government has prevented rescue ships from operating for more than a whole year in sum and sent us around the globe more than three and a half times – while around 2,500 people drowned in the central Mediterranean! The Italian government is breaking EU- and international law by systematically assigning distant ports for people rescued from distress at sea. This is absolutely unacceptable in view of the large number of people in distress at sea on the world’s deadliest migration route,” says Schäfer.
Violation of the law of the sea: SOS Humanity takes legal action against the assignment of distant ports
Instead of assigning survivors from distress at sea to a nearby place of safety, as required by the law of the sea, Italy sends rescue ships to ports in the north or east of Italy that are far away from the rescue location. Frequently assigned ports are Ancona, Brindisi, Bari, Civitavecchia, Genoa, Ortona or Ravenna, 600 to over 1,000 kilometres further away than a nearby port in Sicily (see map above). “The journey to reach such a port, which takes several days, represents an avoidable risk and a violation of basic rights for the survivors, who were often in mortal danger at sea for days and fleeing human rights violations,” emphasises Schäfer. Together with other NGOs, SOS Humanity filed a lawsuit in Italy in April 2023 against the systematic allocation of distant ports and a complaint to the EU Commission in July 2023 (see links below). “The obstruction of civilian sea rescue has reached a new level of escalation since the ultra-right-wing government came to power in Italy at the end of 2022. This is because ships are regularly detained and fines are imposed due to a new law that forces ships to go directly to the assigned port after a rescue. Italy’s obstructive tactics also include the additional costs for civilian sea rescue organisations due to the multiplied fuel consumption,” says Mirka Schäfer from SOS Humanity.
Disembarkation of rescued people at distant ports
The systematic assignment of distant ports affects the entire NGO-rescue fleet. In 2023, such a distant port was assigned to non-governmental rescue ships 107 times for the disembarkation of the rescued persons on board. In the process, 150,538 additional kilometres were covered. The necessary distance to a nearby place of safety on land, as prescribed by international maritime law, was already deducted from this total distance. While this means that the smaller rescue ships can no longer dock in Lampedusa, large rescue ships such as the Humanity 1, are no longer allowed to disembark the rescued people in nearby Sicily. The Italian authorities only assign distant ports to NGO-rescue ships. In 2023, these brought ashore only a fraction of the people who reached Italy by sea (around 8%). Most of the rescues were carried out by the Italian Coast Guard close to the coast – and the rescued people were brought to Lampedusa or Sicily by the coast guard.
In collaboration with SOS Humanity, Fabian Stricker (Fabmap) created an interactive map showing the most frequently assigned ports in northern and eastern Italy (see image above). The map can be used interactively and can also be integrated online free of charge for editorial purposes.
SOS Humanity calculated how many additional kilometres the civilian rescue fleet had to do and how many unnecessary days were lost due to the assignments of distant ports. To figure out the difference in distance and time to close ports available, two reference ports were defined: the island of Lampedusa for the smaller ships* and Pozzallo in Sicily for the larger ships** which are better equipped to care for rescued people. These are located close to the rescue area in the central Mediterranean and are appropriate for the equipment and capacities of the ships. The distance between those and the actually assigned distant ports was calculated. Taking into account the average speed of the different NGO-rescue vessels, the additional time it took to reach the distant port instead of the nearby port was calculated for each vessel.
The most frequently assigned port was Brindisi in eastern Italy (10 disembarkations), 618 additional kilometres away compared to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, followed by Civitavecchia with 834 and Bari with 728 additional kilometres compared to the nearby port in Sicily (9 disembarkations each). Italy’s northernmost ports, Genoa and Ravenna, were also repeatedly assigned as ports for the disembarkation of people rescued from distress at sea.
See also the SOS Humanity position papers on compliance with international law and disembarkation without delay. Position papers – SOS HUMANITY (sos-humanity.org)
*Examples of the rescue ships referred to here as smaller ships: Astral, Aurora, Louise Michel, Mare*Go, Nadir, Rise Above, Trotamar III
**Examples of rescue vessels labelled here as larger vessels: Geo Barents, Humanity 1, Ocean Viking, Open Arms, Sea-Eye 4, Sea-Watch 5