Charity warns Italy's ban on migrant rescue planes risks lives

AFP - [email protected]
Charity warns Italy's ban on migrant rescue planes risks lives
Life jackets stored aboard a rescue ship in the port of the small island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

A migrant rescue charity warned on Thursday that a new Italian ban on using surveillance planes to spot migrant boats in distress in the Mediterranean could endanger lives.


Italy's civil aviation authority Enac issued orders in the past week saying charities will have their planes seized if they carry out "search and rescue" activities from airports in Sicily.

The move follows restrictions placed by far-right premier Giorgia Meloni's government on charity rescue ships as it attempts to fulfil its election pledges to curb arrivals, which soared to around 158,000 last year.

Nearly 2,500 people are known to have died in 2023 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, a 75 percent increase on the previous year, according to the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM).

READ ALSO: What’s behind Italy’s soaring number of migrant arrivals?

"This is definitely another attempt to criminalise search and rescue," Giulia Messmer, spokesperson for the German charity Sea Watch, told AFP.

Sea Watch has two planes, the Seabird 1 and 2, but if they "are not able to fly anymore", the planes "cannot communicate spotted distress cases" to authorities and ships able to carry out rescues, she said.

Enac says it is up to the coastguard, not charities, to perform search and rescue operations. The ban applies to the airports of Palermo and Trapani in Sicily, as well as the islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria.

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The IOM told AFP that while it was "waiting to understand its actual implementation, we are concerned that this decision may hinder life-saving efforts".

Sea Watch warned the planes do not only play a vital role in spotting boats at risk of sinking, they also document the behaviour of the Libyan coastguard, often accused of violence towards migrants.

'Political propaganda'

Immigration lawyer Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo told AFP the order issued by Enac was based on "a partial and contradictory reconstruction of national and international laws governing search and rescues".

It was a political move, "a warning, during the election campaign" for the European Elections, he said.


Sea Watch on Twitter also called the move "an act of cowardice and cynicism... for political propaganda".

Enac answers to Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League party.

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

Messmer, 28, said the Seabird 2 flew on Wednesday from Lampedusa despite the ban and the charity "plans to continue flying in the coming days".

There were no issues getting the necessary authorisation from the airport to take off and land, she said.

Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, was elected to office in 2022 promising to stop migrant boats arriving from North Africa.

Her government has brought in a law obliging charity ships to stage only one rescue at a time and they are often assigned ports in Italy's distant north, making missions longer and more expensive.


Rome has also signed a controversial deal with Albania by which migrants from countries considered to be safe will be intercepted at sea and taken straight to Italian-run centres in Albania.

Critics say the deal is expensive and will prove ineffective because the two centres will only be able to hold a maximum of 3,000 people at a time and asylum applications are notorious slow.


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