Italy detains Germany rescue vessel over sea dispute with Libya coast guards

Rome: Italy detained a German non-governmental rescue vessel Humanity 1 for 20 days, after the Libyan Coast Guard intervened in the rescue operation with armed forces.

SOS Humanity, the German search and rescue organisation, contended that the Italian authorities detained the ship based on false accusations and demanded the ship be released immediately.

The captain of Humanity 1 stated that the Italian authorities detained the ship by invoking the Piantedosi Decree. The Italian Chamber of Deputies enacted new legal provisions that impose a stricter set of requirements for charities that rescue migrants at sea, with the potential penalty of fines and impoundment of ships. It is also the Italian position that SOS Humanity caused a dangerous situation for the people in distress at sea. SOS Humanity maintained Monday that the reasons given by the Italian authorities were unfounded and illegitimate.

Humanity 1 engaged in a rescue operation in international waters on March 2. The ship was first on the scene and therefore under a duty to render assistance to persons at sea in danger of being lost and rescue persons in distress under Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. During the rescue operation, the Libyan Coast Guard intervened, with threats to use armed force, seeking to return survivors to Libya. The ship managed to rescue 77 migrants, but coast guards took around 20 people back to Libya. One person drowned.

Italy originally assigned the ship to a distant port to disembark the survivors amid a forecasted storm. The Italian authorities only agreed to the ship’s request to dock at a closer port of Crotone on Sunday evening and detained the ship after the disembarkation. SOS Humanity alleged that the failure to provide the fastest possible disembarkation at a place of safety is contrary to international maritime law.

Laura Gorriah, president of SOS Humanity, accused the Libyan Coast Guard of violating international law by interrupting the rescue operation. She further condemned the EU for promoting the violations by upholding the “inhumane closed-door policy” and financing the coast guards.

Relatedly, the Italian government also released a decree in September 2023, requiring asylum seekers to pay a financial guarantee to avoid detention during the application process and have the right to enter into Italy as an asylum seeker.