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UN Tells Italy Proposed Decree Violates Migrants' Rights

Migrants are photographed for identification as they disembark from the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, which was carrying 47 migrants, as it docked at the Sicilian port of Catania, southern Italy, Jan. 31, 2019.

The Italian interior ministry vowed Sunday to press ahead with a new decree formalizing the closure of Italian ports to aid groups that rescue migrants, even after U.N. human rights investigators said it violated international law.

Ministry officials said the security decree was "necessary and urgent'' and was expected to be approved at a Cabinet meeting Monday.

In a May 15 letter to Italy's government released Saturday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Italy to withdraw the decree, calling it "yet another political attempt to criminalize search and rescue operations.''

The decree "further intensifies the climate of hostility and xenophobia against migrants,'' said the letter, which was signed by several U.N. human rights rapporteurs.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a hard-line populist, proposed the decree before the European Parliament elections this week, where nationalist, anti-migrant parties are hoping to make strong gains. Salvini's League has soared in popularity in part because of his hard-line migration policy, which has involved boosting the Libyan coast guard's ability to rescue migrants and bring them back.

Among other provisions, the decree leaves it to the interior minister to limit or prohibit entry into Italian territorial waters any ships for public security reasons. It foresees fines of up to 5,500 euros ($6,145) for each migrant transported.

The U.N. letter says the measures would violate migrants' human rights, which are enshrined in U.N. conventions that Italy has signed. It said Italy is obliged to rescue migrants in distress and can't impede others from doing so. And it says that Libya can't be considered a safe port for migrants rescued at sea, particularly after the recent spike in fighting.

Interior ministry officials told journalists in a statement Sunday that Turkey and North Korea similarly punish border violations and that Italy has long had fines in its legal code, which have merely been updated.

"The hope is that the authoritative U.N. dedicates its energies to the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela rather than engage in electoral campaigning in Italy,'' they said.