Italy should scrap or rewrite its new anti-immigration decree aimed at curtailing NGO rescue ships to ensure it "fully complies" with human rights and international law obligations, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner said.
The decree, introduced by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government, orders charity-run ships to request a port and sail to it "without delay" after a rescue, rather than remain at sea looking for other migrant boats in distress.
The Council of Europe, a pan-European human rights watchdog, aired its concerns in the letter addressed to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi. It was sent last week and published online on Thursday.
Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said the Italian decree's restrictions on rescues risk forcing charity ships "to ignore other distress calls in the area if they already have rescued persons on board even when they still have capacity to carry out another rescue."
The commissioner also noted that the practice of assigning ever-more distant ports to NGO vessels "prolongs the suffering of people saved at sea and unduly delays the provision of adequate assistance to meet their basic needs".
Similar criticism came last month from the Italian Catholic Church.
In a response, also published by the Council of Europe, Italy denied its rules ban multiple rescues or forces NGOs to ignore distress calls, but rather seek to end the "systematic" pick up of sea migrants "without any form of coordination".
The decree came into force in early January, but still needs to be ratified by parliament. In the process, it can be amended.
Italy is facing a surge in sea arrivals from North Africa, but rescues carried out by NGOs account for only a little more than 10% of the total, with the bulk of migrants picked up by the state or private vessels, or arriving on their own.
Some 105,140 sea migrants reached Italy in 2022, interior ministry data showed, compared with 67,477 in 2021 and 34,154 in 2020. The United Nations estimates that almost 1,400 migrants died while trying to cross the central Mediterranean in 2022.