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Italian court rules government's anti-migrant decree unlawful

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Italian court rules government's anti-migrant decree unlawful
Aid organistations said Italian government decrees targeting rescue ships contradict international maritime law. (Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP)

An Italian court has ruled against a government decree preventing some migrants rescued at sea from disembarking boats on arrival in Italy, a charity said on Monday.

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The court ruled unlawful the restrictions imposed under a decree issued in November, which said only those deemed most vulnerable may disembark at Italian ports.

The restrictions were first placed on the rescue ship Humanity 1 in November, after it had picked up 179 people in distress in the central Mediterranean - the world's deadliest crossing.

It was given permission to dock in the Sicilian port of Catania, but only for enough time to disembark its most vulnerable passengers.

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While 144 people were allowed off, another 35 migrants were refused and left stranded after the government sent doctors to carry out medical checks on board.

READ ALSO: Anger as Italy accused of illegally rejecting migrants rescued at sea

Similar restrictions were imposed at the time on the Geo Barents, run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders, while a third vessel, the Ocean Viking, decided to head to France rather than face the same situation.

Eventually the 250 remaining migrants from both Humanity 1 and Geo Barents were allowed to disembark, following sharp criticism from the NGOs and the UN.

Following a legal challenge, a Catania court has now declared the Humanity 1 decree "unlawful", according to a February 6 judgement published by SOS Humanity on Monday.

"It is clear that among the international obligations assumed by our country, there is that of providing assistance to every shipwrecked person, without distinguishing on the basis of health, as in the inter-ministerial decree," it said.

Mirka Schaefer, advocacy officer of SOS Humanity, hailed the verdict, saying "the new Italian government is obliged to follow international law".

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government took office in October after September elections in which her far-right Brothers of Italy party and its allies vowed to stop migrants from arriving in Italy.

A new, wider-ranging decree law was introduced this January obliging charity ships to only perform one rescue at a time.

READ ALSO: ‘More will drown’: Italy accused of breaking international law on migrant rescues

Aid organistations said this decree also contradicted international maritime law, urging lawmakers to vote against it when it comes before parliament this week to become a full law.

Doctors Without Borders said “The decreased presence of rescue ships will inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea."

The Council of Europe has also criticised the January decree, warning it "could hinder the provision of life-saving assistance by NGOs".

The Italian government accuses charity ships of acting as a "pull factor" and "encouraging" people traffickers.

However charity vessels only rescue around 10 percent of migrants brought to safety in Italy, with most saved by coastguard or navy vessels.

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