The UN human rights chief on Thursday expressed serious concern about a proposed Italian law that could hinder the provision of life-saving assistance by humanitarian search and rescue groups in the Central Mediterranean, resulting in more sea deaths.
“We all watch with horror the plight of those crossing the Mediterranean, and the desire to end that suffering is profound. But this is simply the wrong way to address this humanitarian crisis,” said Volker Turk in a statement.
“More people in distress will be made to suffer, and more lives risk being lost because timely help will not be available if this law is passed.”
He said the law would effectively punish both migrants and those who seek to help them.
Turk said the law penalizes humanitarian actions that would likely deter human rights and humanitarian organizations from doing their essential work.
The proposed law was passed by the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian parliament on Wednesday, and is scheduled for appraisal by the Senate next week.
It requires humanitarian rescue ships to head to port immediately after each rescue, foregoing additional rescues even if they are near people in distress.
Under the proposed law, crews on board the ships must register every person who is planning to ask for international protection. Non-governmental organizations that do not comply with the new rules would be subject to administrative sanctions, fines and have their vessel seized.
“Under international law, a captain is duty-bound to render immediate assistance to people in distress at sea, and States must protect the right to life,” said Turk. “But under this new proposal, a nearby search and rescue vessel would be obliged to ignore the distress calls of those at sea simply by virtue of having already saved others.”
He added: “Those left stranded at sea would be forced to endure prolonged exposure to the elements and risk losing their lives. Those who survive face increased delays in accessing adequate medical care and rehabilitation, including for victims of torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations.”
The rights chief urged Italy to withdraw the proposed law, and consult civil society groups, in particular search and rescue NGOs, to ensure any proposed legislation complies fully with international human rights law and international refugee law.