Analysis. Instead of head-on confrontation with rescue ships and their supporters, the Italian government now seems to have identified a more subtle strategy: reduce the operations of NGOs and multiply the costs of rescues.

Italy’s new anti-NGO strategy: quickly assign a port as far away as possible

“The ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.” I wonder if Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi thought of this teaching of Sun Tzu when deciding to change the strategy of countering NGOs in the Mediterranean. Both the anticipated measures that will be part of the upcoming code of conduct for humanitarian ships and the new practice of fast port assignment move the Viminale away from the bombastic tones of Salvini’s “closed ports,” and also from the muscular display of early November, when it tried to prevent four ships from landing through a hotly contested interministerial decree and then the “selective landings” approach.

On that occasion, constitutionalists, doctors, governments of other member countries and the European institutions themselves, with the Commission taking the floor, had made it clear that Rome cannot prevent rescues and that shipwrecked people must be allowed to disembark. Particularly in Italy, given the geographical location and the anomaly of the small island-state of Malta. Instead of head-on confrontation, the Italian government now seems to have identified a more subtle strategy: reduce the operations of NGOs and multiply the costs of rescues. It is doing this through the combination of two moves that threaten to put at least part of the humanitarian fleet, its largest ships, under direct threat. The first is to immediately assign a port after the first rescue. The second is to assign a distant destination.

That’s what happened on Saturday and Sunday to the three ships on mission: Rise Above, Sea-Eye 4 and Life Support (belonging to Emergency). On Friday, the first vessel, small and fast and therefore not a ship as such, rescued 63 people and then carried them aboard the larger Sea-Eye 4. On Saturday it carried out a second rescue: 27 shipwrecked people. On the same day, Rome assigned Gioia Tauro to Rise Above, and a port as far away as Livorno to Sea-Eye 4. It was the same pattern on Sunday: Life Support rescued 70 people at 5 a.m., and six hours later was sent to Livorno.

The fast port assignment fully complies with international conventions. At the same time, however, it reveals that the government’s attacks on NGOs about supposed noncompliance were only instrumental and that the only goal is to avoid, or at least limit, rescues. Ships will have to sail hundreds of nautical miles after each intervention, moving them away from the search and rescue area. Especially since ports are assigned that are at ever-increasing distances, even though they’re being assigned quickly.

This violates the provision that disembarkation should take place in the shortest time and at the nearest safe harbor, but this will be more difficult to challenge in point of law. The Hamburg SAR Convention says that after rescue, vessels should deviate “as little as possible from their intended course.” The rule is designed for commercial vessels and not for ships that are at sea precisely to save lives and therefore do not have a predefined route. Moreover, during the past two governments, NGOs have been waiting in ports for days, without ever really protesting, and have acquiesced to being sent far away. They’re being sent to Taranto, especially, but also to Salerno.

The approach to increase distance to landings was prepared by the previous Interior Minister, Luciana Lamorgese. With the new government this has only continued: Bari and Salerno for Humanity 1 and Geo Barents last week, Livorno for Sea-Eye 4 and Life Support now. Maybe next time it will be Genoa’s turn. At that point, it would be hard to understand why Liguria would fit better than Marseille, since the core impulse has never been to land everyone in Italy, but to touch down in ports close to the rescues to avoid long crossings that would complicate the conditions of the shipwrecked.

Among the expected measures in the new code of conduct, in addition to the ban on moving people from one ship to another and the deputizing of captains to take asylum claims (a move of dubious legitimacy), there is the obligation to carry out one rescue per trip. But if this can be induced through making them depart from the search and rescue zone, it is unlikely to be imposed by law. Even if the ship has to return to its assigned port, there remains an obligation on the captain, as established by international conventions, to provide assistance to boats in distress. When there is an ongoing emergency, therefore, no code of conduct can prevent a ship from responding to an SOS.

This is what happened between Sunday and Monday for the Life Support and Sea-Eye 4: as they sailed back to Livorno, they rescued 72 and 45 migrants. In the second case, Italy insisted that the ship continue sailing “directly to the assigned port,” while Malta intimated that it would not intervene because the boat, which had been at sea for a good six days, was supposedly not in danger. Such an interpretation is far from international norms and the pronouncements of several Italian courts.

Meanwhile, on Monday, a barge with 160 people arrived in Lampedusa “escorted” by Open Arms’ sailing ship Astral, and then, once in the Italian SAR, was rescued by the Coast Guard. That also rescued 41 people who were shipwrecked 10 miles from the island.

Nothing could be done, however, for little Rokia: she was less than three years old and died in the Lampedusa outpatient clinic. That’s the same place where Infrastructure Minister Matteo Salvini posed for a photo-op among Coast Guard personnel on Monday, and declared: “We have a duty to stop human trafficking run by criminals, which only brings death and despair.”

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