Rescue Vessel's Crew May Face Prosecution for Rescue at Sea

Brendan Woodhouse, a volunteer RIB coxswain aboard Sea Watch 3 (Sea Watch)

Published Jan 29, 2019 10:59 AM by The Maritime Executive

Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister and the leader of Italy's anti-immigration Lega party, has accused the crew of the migrant rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 of "criminality" for rescuing 47 maritime migrants in the central Mediterranean. His ministry is presently considering charges against the crew for "favoring illegal immigration." 

"We are being threatened with a criminal investigation for saving people's lives at sea," said volunteer crewmember Brendan Woodhouse, a firefighter from the town of Matlock, England. 

Italian authorities permitted the Sea-Watch 3 to shelter off Sicily during a storm, but they have forbidden the vessel to depart until after the inquiry is complete. Woodhouse and three other British nationals serving aboard the Sea-Watch 3 - including Jon Stone, the vessel's chief engineer and a veteran of the Royal Navy - have appealed to the UK Foreign Office to intervene on their behalf. In a statement to the Telegraph, the ministry said that it contines to "monitor the situation" and to seek further information. 

Under the Lega party and its coalition partners, Italy has refused to allow rescued maritime migrants to enter the country, and it has encouraged other European nations to accept the arrivals instead. In the case of the Sea-Watch 3, Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio suggested that the rescuees should disembark in either France or the Netherlands; the latter is the vessel's flag state. 

In a statement, the Netherlands' security ministry declined to accept asylum applicants, at least until the EU formulates a broader policy on handling asylum claims at the border. "Those who are not entitled to international protection need to be sent back immediately on arrival at European borders," the ministry said. "Without a clear perspective for such a structural solution, the Netherlands will not participate in ad hoc measures for the disembarkation."

European court intervenes 

The Sea-Watch's operator, an aid organization of the same name, has filed suit with the European Court of Human Rights to require Italian authorities to allow the vessel to offload rescuees in Sicily. In an interim ruling issued Tuesday, the court declined, but ordered Italy to provide the vessel and her passengers with aid. 

In the ruling, the ECHR ordered Italy “to take all necessary measures, as soon as possible, to provide all the applicants with adequate medical care, food, water and basic supplies as necessary." In addition, Italy is instructed to provide the 15 unaccompanied children on board with legal guardianship (legal assistance). 

In a statement, Italy said that it is pursuing a two-fold defense before the court: first, an assertion that the Netherlands is the proper party to answer to Sea-Watch's charges, as it is the flag state; and second, that the Sea-Watch 3 should have delivered the rescuees to a port in Tunisia, which would have been closer to the site of the rescue.