Why Italians who rescue refugees face €1m fine
Boat captains may also be arrested and their vessels confiscated for carrying stranded migrants
The Italian parliament has approved a controversial new law allowing captains of migrant rescue boats to be slapped with fines of up to €1m (£920,000) if they enter Italy’s ports without permission.
The legislation, put forward by Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, was passed by the country’s Senate on Monday by a vote of 160 in favour to 57 against, with 21 abstentions, reports The Independent.
Salvini, deputy prime minister in the coalition government, later tweeted: “The security decree, with more powers to the forces of order, more controls at the border, more manpower to arrest gangsters, is law. I thank you, Italians, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
The new maximum fine represents a dramatic mark-up on a €50,000 fine introduced in an emergency decree in June, in the wake of a series of stand-offs between the populist Italian government and NGO rescue boats, says the BBC.
The newly passed bill also introduces harsher penalties for crimes associated with public demonstrations, such as threatening a public official.
Why has the Italian government passed the legislation?
Salvini has claimed that NGO rescue boats merely act as as “taxi service” for human traffickers to transport migrants from Libya to Europe, and insists that the Libyan authorities should be responsible for taking stranded migrants back, says the BBC.
He has barred rescue ships from docking at Italian ports, and vowed that no unauthorised refugees will be granted asylum in Italy.
Salvini’s League party, the senior partner in Italy’s coalition government, makes no secret of the fact it has a strongly anti-migrant agenda - a stance that appears to appeal to many voters. A recent poll put the League party on 37.7%, up from 17% at last year’s elections.
And a study by the Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center in March found that 54% of Italians view migrants as a burden on their country.
At the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, 154,000 of the million migrants fleeing to Europe arrived in Italy, but since then the number of migrants coming into the country has fallen drastically, with just 2,800 migrants entering Italy so far this year.
Christian Dustmann, director of the London-based Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, told the BBC that the rate of new arrivals was now “minute”.
“But the way the Italian government has reacted is very much to make migration the joker in the pack, with Salvini trying to cultivate this image of a guy sorting out a problem which he makes out to be much bigger than it is,” he says.
And the response?
Critics of the new measures have accused the right-wing government of using the refugee crisis as a distraction from domestic issues, reports the Financial Times.
Rossella Muroni, deputy leader of Italy’s Free and Equal party, said: “Not having solutions to the real problems of Italians, the government have identified a scapegoat.
“Today it is the NGOs and the migrants, who knows who it will be tomorrow.”
NGO boats committed to rescuing refugees have already defied Salvini’s refusal to accept migrants. In May, rescue boat Sea-Watch 3 forced its way into the port of Lampedusa carrying dozens of migrants rescued off Libya.
Salvini called the move “an act of war”, and accused 31-year-old boat captain Carola Rackete - whom he referred to as a “rich, white, German woman” - of being a pirate and an outlaw.
Some Italians are also resisting Salvini’s decree. In July, a Sicilian father and son rescued 50 migrants aboard a dinghy that had run out of fuel and was taking on water, reports The Guardian.
Captain Carlo Giarratano told the newspaper: “If I had ignored those cries for help, I wouldn’t have had the courage to face the sea again.”
Do stricter laws reduce deaths?
In an article for Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera earlier this year, Salvini wrote: “In 2018 there were fewer deaths, 23,370 landings compared to 119,369 the previous year. The trend is also confirmed by the first few weeks of 2019.”
The deputy PM attributed the decreases to harsher laws discouraging would-be migrants from attempting the crossing.
However, a report from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) highlighted the higher rate of deaths among those who did make the journey, and pointed to the difficulties faced by humanitarian rescue groups as a key cause.
The organisation reported that the rate of deaths among migrants from Libya rose to one for every 14 arrivals in 2018 – up from one in 38 in 2017, says the BBC. An average of six migrants died crossing the Mediterranean every day last year.
“Although the overall number of deaths at sea in the Central Mediterranean more than halved in 2018 compared to the previous year, the rate of deaths per number of people attempting the journey rose sharply,” the report authors concluded.