24 Feb 2023

Policing Search and Rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean

Does justice end at sea?

Sergio Carrera / Davide Colombi / Roberto Cortinovis

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The policing of NGOs and human rights defenders providing humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and immigrants, as well as search and rescue (SAR) in the Mediterranean has reached a new low due to the current far-right Italian government.

This CEPS In-Depth Analysis paper examines the Italian government’s practices of responsibility evasion and selective disembarkation of SAR NGO vessels, the ensuing diplomatic row with the French government over the 2022 Ocean Viking affair, and the introduction of a Code of Conduct sanctioning SAR NGOs in January 2023. The paper argues that upholding justice at sea is not a ‘pick and choose’ game for governments and migration policymakers. Some of the human rights at stake are absolute in nature, and therefore accept no derogation or weighing with other policy interests. Policing the work of civil society actors and a policy of selective disembarkation run contrary to EU law and constitute clear indicators of a systematic threat to national and EU constitutional principles. This calls for effective and timely EU enforcement measures, to uphold a justice-centred approach that fully respects the dignity of every person and the safeguarding of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.

The cover image shows the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Memorial sculpture by Sam Holland in Poole, UK, which is designed to be a beacon of hope. According to the RNLI website “the sculpture bears the motto of Sir William Hillary: ‘With courage, nothing is impossible.’ It’s a beacon of hope, honouring those who continue to save lives at sea, as well as those lost in the act of lifesaving.”

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