Italy Reaches Deal to Disembark Rescuees from Coast Guard Cutter

The Bruno Gregoretti (file image)

Published Jul 31, 2019 8:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

Italy's interior ministry has allowed a group of African maritime rescuees to disembark at a Sicilian port after reaching a one-time deal with other EU nations for their reception, an ad-hoc arrangement that has been used previously under the administration of Italy's anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini. 

116 rescued migrants were stranded aboard the Italian coast guard cutter Bruno Gregoretti at the port of Augusta, Sicily for five days while Italy negotiated placement arrangements for the survivors. France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and the Vatican have agreed to take responsibility for their care, and the group disembarked Wednesday. Other rescuees from the Gregoretti had previously been medevaced or permitted to come ashore for humanitarian or medical reasons, including 15 minors and one woman who was seven months pregnant. 

EU immigration rules dictate that refugees must normally apply for asylum status in the country of arrival, which has left Italy handling an outsize share of the Mediterranean migration crisis. From 2014 to 2017, hundreds of thousands of Africans departed Libyan shores and arrived on Italy's Mediterranean islands by means of small craft or rescue at sea. The large number of arrivals prompted a political backlash in Italy, contributing to Salvini's electoral success in June 2018. 

Over the past year, Salvini has implemented a policy of banning effectively all disembarkation of African marine casualty survivors on Italian shores, including Africans arriving aboard dedicated rescue vessels, merchant ships, naval vessels and the cutters of the Guarda Costiera. NGO-operated rescue operations in the Mediterranean have declined dramatically, and the few that remain have had difficulty in finding ports of refuge for rescuees. 

These restrictions have led to new operating procedures for rescue NGOs. In June, one rescue ship master - Capt. Carola Rakete of the Sea-Watch 3 - defied government directives and entered the port of Lampedusa without permission in order to disembark survivors. She was arrested and charged with resisting orders and "violence against warships," but Italian Judge Alessandra Vella ordered her released, finding that Capt. Rakete was “doing her duty saving human lives," as required under UNCLOS.