Letter to the European Council Commissioner for Human Rights of the European Council from the civil society rescue vessels

To the European Council Commissioner for Human Rights of the European Council

Re: Reporting of the decree dated 7th April 2020, issued by the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport in consultation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Health, concerning the refusal of POS (place of safety) to ships not flying the Italian flag, due to the Covid-19 emergency.

Dear Commissioner,

Médicins Sans Frontières, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Open Arms and Sea-Watch, all operating Search and Rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean Sea, turns to you in order to report that, with the interministerial decree of 7th April 2020, the Italian authorities have established that Italy will not grant a POS to people rescued at sea by ships that do not fly the Italian flag, due to the current health emergency.

The decree is based on the assumption that a possible landing on Italian soil would place an unsustainable burden on the national health system, itself already strained by the Covid 19 emergency,  thus exposing the population to further risk of contagion, and diverting the efforts of police forces, currently working to monitor compliance with rules about freedom of movement during lockdown.

We express great concern for the decisions taken, which appear to have neither logical nor empirical foundations. These decisions are largely discriminatory and completely disproportionate to the objectives referred to in the decree. They are also in clear contrast with international treaties and, in particular, with the Convention, although this very Convention is invoked in the decree.

It is impossible to understand how the existence of a current and concrete risk for public national safety can be inferred from a purely hypothetical assumption – the potential presence of cases of infection on board. It also does not seem acceptable that such a significant measure, capable of affecting the fundamental rights of individuals rescued at sea, guaranteed by Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention, can be taken on a purely preventive basis.

Indeed, in the event of disembarkation, the decree lists no impediments to the application of the same preventive protocols that must be applied to all citizens entering the country from abroad. These measures appear to be fully satisfactory of current requirements, and are compatible with the equally important demands for protection of the fundamental rights of rescued individuals.

We are equally surprised and concerned by the pointless separation made between ships flying the Italian flag and those flying foreign flags.

This distinction clearly has no relevance in terms of containing the risk of infection, and it just looks like the latest attempt to hinder the NGOs’ ships’ search and rescue operations, thus preventing the rescued refugees from accessing any international protection procedures in Italy. In addition, this distinction also creates an intolerable discrimination between rescuees and the rescuers.

In this regard, we wish to strongly denounce the treatment of the ship Alan Kurdi of German NGO Sea Eye, and the 150 refugees aboard it; who have been refused a POS by the Italian authorities, in compliance with the above mentioned flag-based principle. The 150 refugees aboard the Alan Kurdi are in a serious state of vulnerability; the group includes women and minors, victims of atrocious violence and serious systematic human rights violations in Libya, a country still torn apart by war, and utterly unequipped to face the current health emergency.

Such decisions, as well as the entire structure of the interministerial decree dated 7th April 2020, are therefore profoundly detrimental to the fundamental rights of the individuals rescued at sea.

Article 15 of the Convention specifically forbids — even in an emergency situation — to repeal the right to life; it also clearly states the prohibition of torture and inhumane or degrading treatmen. These very rights are currently highly at risk of not being granted to the individuals fleeing the war in Libya.

We now ask the Commissioner to intervene, within its competence, in order to clarify that the rights of the individuals rescued at sea must be guaranteed, regardless of whichever ship may have carried out the rescue operation. Above all, we ask the Commissioner to reiterate that, in this context, no exception or balancing is acceptable when identifying a POS.

Claudia Lodesani, President of MSF Italy


Alessandra Sciurba, President of Mediterranea Saving Humans


Johannes Bajer, President of Sea-Watch 


Riccardo Gatti, President of Open Arms Italy