Italian courts have already overturned several detention orders issued against migrant rescue ships
Italian courts have already overturned several detention orders issued against migrant rescue ships AFP

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's battle with migrant rescue charities is increasingly ending up in court, with judges often siding with NGOs but not yet calling the law into question.

Meloni's hard-right government last year imposed new restrictions on the charity ships that rescue migrants adrift in the Central Mediterranean, and many of them have been detained -- sometimes repeatedly -- for breaking the law.

While Italian courts have overturned several such detention orders, they have yet to identify potential flaws in the law that could favour the NGOs in the future.

Last week, a court in Reggio Calabria in southern Italy ruled that a detention order that sought to immobilise the German rescue boat Sea-Eye 4 for 60 days was unlawful.

That order was dated March 11, four days after the ship's crew had rescued 84 migrants, including 36 children, off the coast of Libya.

The authorities had argued that the Sea-Eye 4 had intervened to help the migrant boat without the green light from the Libyan coastguard and without respecting their instructions -- creating a potentially dangerous situation at sea.

The court found no evidence to support the government's argument, noting instead that radio exchanges between the two parties had been cordial.

"This is the Sea-Eye 4... The rescue operation is complete. We are leaving the area, per your advice, in accordance with your instructions," the crew said, according to exchanges contained in the court ruling viewed by AFP.

"Sea-Eye, this is the Libyan coastguard. Ok, thank you for your cooperation," was the response.

The court ordered Italian authorities to pay the legal costs of Sea-Eye, the charity operating the vessel.

Sea-Eye hailed what it called a "significant victory".

The judgment "clearly shows that the detention of civilian rescue ships is an abuse of state powers", said chairman Gorden Isler.

Italy's interior ministry told AFP the court's decision in Reggio Calabria had "no impact on the law that has been applied many times and is in force".

It also said the government would appeal.

Since coming to power in October 2022, Meloni's coalition has sought to stem the arrival of migrant boats into Italy from North Africa.

It accuses the rescue ships as being a "pull factor" -- although in reality the vast majority of migrants who arrive in Italy are picked up by the Italian coastguard.

The Piantedosi law, named after Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, requires NGOs to head "without delay" to a port immediately after a rescue is completed -- a policy that prevents them from carrying out several in a row.

The NGOs argue that it violates maritime law, which requires any ship to come to the aid of a boat in distress.

But failing to comply risks a fine between 2,000 to 10,000 euros ($2,145 - $10,725), as well as an administrative detention of 20 days and, ultimately, the definitive seizure of the vessel.

To date, 21 fines have been imposed on 10 vessels.

In March, the Sea-Watch 5 ship, operated by the NGO of the same name, was detained in dock before a court overturned the decision.

During its 20-day immobilisation, "at least 145 people drowned" in the Central Mediterranean, the organisation told AFP.

"The detention of civil rescue ships is a purely political manoeuver," Sea-Watch spokesman Oliver Kulikowski said.

Meloni has hailed a sharp decline in arrivals this year.

Between January 1 and June 11, almost 23,000 people arrived, compared to 54,800 during the same period of 2023, according to the interior ministry.

The flow of arrivals has largely shifted towards Spain and Greece -- but experts say there are many reasons for changing migration patterns.

Migrants "change route and adapt to obstacles", Daniel Auerbacher, head of operations for SOS Mediterranee, told AFP last month.

He noted the weather played a part, as did increased controls in Tunisia or Libya, from where migrants depart.

Either way, the crossing remains incredibly dangerous.

Last year, 3,155 migrants died or went missing after trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM).

European sea patrols are "very insufficient", IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said.

And despite fewer numbers this year, "migrants who embark to cross the Mediterranean risk their lives more than last year" because they are less likely to be rescued in the event of shipwreck, he said.