Published by Joint press release by sea rescue organizations | 28 / Aug / 2023

EU Member States must immediately remove obstacles to civil fleet search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean

In June 2023, around 600 people lost their lives in another preventable shipwreck off the coast of Greece. As a civil society, we are shocked by the deaths that occur every year in the central Mediterranean but could have been avoided. Despite the fact that every ship is absolutely essential to prevent the ever-increasing number of deaths on the world's deadliest migration route, EU Member States - led by Italy - are actively obstructing civilian search and rescue operations.

As of today, Aurora, Open Arms and Sea-Eye 4, three fully equipped civilian search and rescue (SAR) vessels, are unable to operate at sea. The three detention orders, issued by the Italian authorities in less than 48 hours, add to the growing number of administrative proceedings SAR NGOs have faced this year.

Since the beginning of 2023, there have been eight cases of detention of NGO vessels in Italy. The civil rescue vessels Aurora, Geo Barents, Louise Michel, Mare*Go, Open Arms and Sea-Eye 4 were prevented from sailing for 20 days on the basis of unlawful decrees. Both Aurora and Sea-Eye 4 were detained for the second time this year.

These detentions blocked the NGO SAR vessels for a total of 160 days, during which they could have been used to rescue people on boats in distress and prevent the shipwrecks that occur daily in the central Mediterranean.

21 August, Aurora in Lampedusa, when it was blocked for 20 days
(Photo credits: Sea-Watch)

The administrative harassment follows a recent decree¹ by an EU member state such as Italy, which tightens the requirements for NGO vessels carrying out search and rescue operations and introduces penalties for non-compliance.

The new measures are part of a long history of criminalisation and obstruction of civilian search and rescue operations in Italy. By applying the law, the Italian authorities are ordering SAR vessels to return to their designated port immediately after a rescue - even in situations where there are open cases of boats in distress in the vicinity of the NGO vessel.

This means that the new national law puts pressure on civil fleet commanders to disregard international maritime law and the obligation to rescue. The Italian authorities are thus de facto restricting rescue operations, contrary to the obligation to rescue under international law.

27 August, Geo Barents disembarked in Brindisi, port 5 nautical days from the place of rescue
(Photo credits: MSF)

The legal situation is exacerbated by the Italian government's practice of designating 'distant ports', requiring NGO vessels to disembark rescued persons in ports up to 1,600 km and 5 days sailing time away from the place of rescue. Under international law, rescued persons should be disembarked in a safe place "as soon as reasonably practicable", with "the least possible diversion from the ship's route", and the time rescued persons spend on board should be kept to a minimum².

However, in more than 60 cases since December 2002, the Italian authorities have assigned NGO ships a port that is too far and unnecessarily distant.

In addition, the Italian authorities have recently instructed NGO vessels on several occasions to request a safe port in Tunisia for people rescued at sea. Due to serious violations of the rights of asylum seekers and in the midst of a wave of violence against migrant populations, Tunisia cannot be considered a safe country. Landing rescued people on its shores would be a violation of international law.

NGOs that did not comply with the unlawful demands of the Italian authorities were fined up to €10,000 and their boats were detained for 20 days. Now all NGOs carrying out search and rescue operations at sea risk further fines and detentions.

According to Italian law, repeated violations will lead to the confiscation of the boats and the permanent cessation of activities.

The detention and possible seizure of NGO vessels and the allocation of distant ports limit the rescue operations of the vessels. We know from the experience of the restrictions imposed by the Greek government on search and rescue NGOs in September 2021 that the creeping obstacles now being put in place in Italy will eventually reduce the number of active civilian rescue vessels and consequently increase the loss of life in the Mediterranean.

As NGOs, associations and organisations fighting for international protection and the fundamental rights of people on the move, we have witnessed the EU's deadly policy of closure and criminalisation.

This policy does not reduce the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean, it only causes more suffering and death. While Italy - backed by the silent majority of EU member states - implemented these restrictive measures, the number of deadly shipwrecks increased dramatically, making 2023 already one of the deadliest in recent years.

The increase in the number of shipwrecks highlights the urgent need for additional search and rescue resources.

The beach of Cutro after the shipwrech on 26 February

We therefore make an urgent appeal to the EU and its Member States: if humanitarian assistance at sea continues to be hampered, we could see a drastic reduction or even the disappearance of civil rescue vessels at sea by the end of the year. The consequences will be even more deadly, as restricting civil rescue operations will not stop people from trying to cross the sea.

We therefore call on the EU and its Member States to take urgent action to end the unlawful blockade of civil rescue vessels in Italy.

All SAR vessels must be released immediately and the fines imposed by the law must be lifted. The Italian law restricting NGO search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean must be repealed immediately and replaced with international maritime law and respect for human rights as the legal framework for all actors at sea.

The European Commission must address the increasing violation of the fundamental principles of the rule of law by its Member States at the EU's external borders.

EU states must also create legal and safe routes to prevent people from being forced to board unseaworthy boats.

¹ Decree-Law No 1/2023, amended by Law No 15 of 24 February 2023.

² Amendments of 2004 to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (1979), IMO Resolution MSC.155(78), 3.1.9; IMO Resolution MSC.167(78), 2004, 6.8.

Promoting organisations:




Louise Michel


MARE*GO – Zusammenland UG

Médecins Sans Frontières


Mission Lifeline

Open Arms

ResQ – People Saving People



Sea-Eye e. V.


Sea-Watch e.V.

SMH – Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario

SOS Humanity




Alarm Phone





Human Rights at Sea

Lighthouse Relief

aditus foundation

I Have Rights.

La Cimade

Channel Info Project from l’Auberge des Migrants

Progetto Mem.Med



Convenzione per i diritti nel Mediterraneo

Abolish Frontex Roma

Stop Border Violence

Asmara’s World

Gisti (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigré·e·s)

Seebrücke Frankfurt am Main P

asaje Seguro Cantabria

Medici del Mondo

Alarme Phone Sahara

Are You Syrious?

migration-control.Info Projekt

Lungo la Rotta Balcanica

Migreurop A

SGI Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione

Ärzte der Welt e.V. / Médecins du Monde Germany



Associazione Don Vincenzo Matrangolo E.T.S.

MoCi A.p.s. Recosol (Rete delle comunità solidali)

Boza Fii ( Benn Kaddu – Benn Yoon )

Europe Must Act

Migrant Women Association Malta

SOS Malta

Blue Door Education

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