GENEVA - The United Nations refugee agency says it is alarmed by the Italian parliament’s decision to impose severe penalties on boats and people conducting rescue operations for migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Italian parliament has approved changes to existing law aimed at deterring private charities from rescuing refugees and migrants in distress at sea.
The new law, originally proposed by Italy’s conservative interior minister, Matteo Salvini, would impose a maximum fine of $1.1 million on any private rescue vessel that enters Italy’s territorial waters. In addition, rescue ships would be automatically impounded.
U.N. refugee agency spokesman Charlie Yaxley says the new law is of great concern as it could deter private vessels from helping migrants at a time when European countries have largely ended those life-saving missions.
“NGO’s play an invaluable role in saving the lives of refugees and migrants attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Europe," Yaxley said. "Their commitment and humanity should not be criminalized nor stigmatized. Likewise, NGO and commercial vessels must not be requested to transfer rescued people to the Libyan Coast Guard or be directed to disembark them in Libya.”
The UNHCR says it is not safe to return refugees and migrants to Libya where they are arbitrarily detained in facilities under often-abusive and appalling conditions.
In the meantime, the International Organization for Migration says 49 migrants arrived late Monday in the Italian port of Lampedusa. IOM spokesman Joel Millman says their boat was apparently not escorted by any official authority or any NGO rescue vessel.
“We understand 46 of the 49 came from Cote d’Ivoire," said Millman. "That survivors reported that 20 people on board with them when they left the coast of Africa have perished.”
The IOM has recorded 840 deaths on the three main Mediterranean Sea routes in the first seven months of the year. It says the death toll does not include the 20 migrants said to have died enroute to Lampedusa.