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Migrant Lives

Italian Shame: Meloni's Migrant Policy Is Probably Illegal And Certainly Immoral

Vladimiro Zagrebelsky, an Italian jurist and former judge on the European Court of Human Rights, says Italy's new government's blocking rescued migrants from coming ashore is a likely violation of international law, and indication of what it thinks of basic human rights.

Photo of a man walking on a plank off a ship

One of the rescued migrants in Catania, Sicily on the Geo Barents ship

Orietta Scardino/ANSA via ZUMA
Vladimiro Zagrebelsky


ROME — Italy's first major showdown over immigration since the election of new right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has passed. But this is just the beginning.

Late Tuesday, Italian health officials allowed more than 250 people on NGO rescue boats to disembark on the island of Sicily, and another vessel carrying 234 people was headed to the French island of Corsica. This followed a weeklong standoff in which the Italian government would only care for those it considered “vulnerable” passengers.

Still, Meloni criticized the decision of health officials, which means we can expect the blocking of rescued migrants from disembarking appears bound to happen again.

The latest news came after the Italian government denied port access to three NGO ships that had rescued about 1,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in late October.

It was Meloni effectively following through on her promise to resume the fight against “illegal migration” launched three years earlier by then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who today is Meloni’s coalition partner.

What are safe harbor laws?

The Interior Minister issued a decree allowing two of the ships to dock at the port of Catania, in Sicily, for the time necessary for the Italian authorities to provide assistance to people in distress or in a precarious state of health.

The ships were prohibited from remaining for longer than strictly necessary for the assessment and assistance operations, and were expected to leave Italian waters with those migrants the Italian authorities had not deemed vulnerable.

Despite the broad arguments put forth by the government and its advocates, the move is quite probably a clear violation of both European and international law. International law requires states to make safe harbor available to ships in need. That means not simply taking care of people in distress aboard a ship, but safe disembarkation ashore, as stated by the various Conventions related to rescue at sea as well as by the Italy’s Highest Court of Cassation.

As for the decree, what is problematic is not so much the selection being made among the migrants on the ship, admitting some ashore and not others (international law specifically protects those who fall into the large category of so-called vulnerable people, mainly because of physical conditions, from expulsion), it’s the Italian government’s exceedingly narrow criteria for determining “vulnerability.”

people disembarking from a boat at night

Rescued migrants disembarking from an NGO ship docked in the port of Catania (Sicily)

© Orietta Scardino / ANSA via ZUMA Press

The Libya example

Furthermore, people receiving assistance onshore will be able to apply for asylum, whereas those who remain on the ship will not. Yet, the rules in force require states to ensure that all migrants be able to file asylum claims, and benefit from the procedural guarantees provided for by the European Convention on Human Rights, such as the right to appeal any decree of expulsion or repatriation.

The European Court has already condemned Italy for a similar episode of repatriation, in which a military ship returned rescued migrants to Libya without giving them the necessary information and the possibility to apply for protection according to the procedures and guarantees established both in Italian and international law. In that case, as is happening in today's, the repatriation was being carried out without identifying each migrant, without examining his or her individual condition in Libya or the country of national origin, without individual assessment and without possibility of appeal.

It was a case of collective expulsion, which is prohibited in international law.

It was, as it is this time, a case of collective expulsion, which is prohibited in international law as it exposes migrants to the risk of torture and inhumane treatment in the country where they are returned.

Libya, in particular, is known for the terrible conditions it imposes on migrants, and NGO and UN agencies that operate there (or try to) are unanimous in ruling out Libya as a safe harbor for humanitarian reasons.

Rescues will continue

The Italian government also argues that the flag state of each ship take charge of the migrants on board, and that a decision on how to relocate them among EU member states be made before they set foot on Italian soil. However, neither of these injunctions has any legal basis in international conventions.

On the contrary, they carry an authoritarian trait that is the exact opposite of the atmosphere of dialogue that is needed to bring about greater burden-sharing at the European level. Instead, it has another effect: it serves merely to showcase to the public and the right-wing government's electoral base how badly Italy is being mistreated by other governments and the European Union. In doing so, the government hides the obvious reality that other governments also take into account their own domestic public opinion, which is often opposed to welcoming migrants.

In short, showdowns on the European level are politically counterproductive, especially when human beings are treated as merely pawns in political games.. Even more so if one considers that this and other similar episodes end up undoing the continuous, heavy and generous work of Italy’s Coast Guard, Guardia di Finanza and Navy, which—along with various NGOs—continue to rescue and bring ashore thousands of migrants found at sea. Instead, these showdowns produce serious damage to Italy’s image and dignity.


Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni


Shame that is shared

There is not just dismay at seeing the government of a country ostensibly bound by the rule of law disregarding international and domestic laws, but also shame, consoled only by the fact that Italy is not alone in its reluctance or outright refusal to offer safe harbor to migrants.

Human rights belong to individuals, and it is unacceptable to turn them into instruments of migration policy. For that is precisely what this is all about: the government chooses to make life impossible for NGOs and migrants so as to scare them and discourage them from trying to cross the Mediterranean.

And even if courts or European institutions get in the way, the government will still have achieved something. It will be able to show itself as the one who flexed its muscles in defense of Italy’s borders and point to others as ‘enemies’ who prevent that defense.

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