Previously published at Common Dreams

Human rights defenders on Thursday condemned a decree by Italy’s far-right government limiting the operations of migrant rescue ships, warning that the new restrictions would add to a refugee death toll that’s already in the tens of thousands.

The year-end decree issued Wednesday by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her neo-fascist Brothers of Italy Cabinet compels ships to proceed immediately to an assigned port after a rescue instead of providing aid to other distressed vessels, as is commonly done. Critics say humanitarian vessels will be assigned to distant ports in order to keep them from the rescue zone for as long as possible.

Under the new rules, migrants must also declare while aboard a rescue ship whether they wish to apply for asylum, and if so, in which European Union country.

Captains of civilian vessels found in violation of the rules face fines of up to €50,000 ($53,500) and confiscation and impoundment of their ships.

“With the new rules imposed by the Italian government on NGO vessels, we will be forced to leave relief areas in the Mediterranean Sea unguarded, with an inevitable increase in the number of dead,” Doctors Without Borders Italy said in a statement. “Imagine a car accident with many injured and ambulances forced to take them to hospitals in another region. At some point there will be no more ambulances available.”

“In recent years we have tried to fill the void left by the absence of a state aid system,” the group noted, “but if they make the task more difficult, if not impossible, who is going to save lives?”

The NGO continued:

The captains and crews of the ships will be faced with an ethical dilemma, between the duty to provide rescue according to the law of the sea, and that of respecting the rules by heading to port after having carried out the first rescue. And to think that, until 2017, when our help was considered precious and there was a tested rescue mechanism, it was often the [Italian] Coast Guard who asked us to stay at sea one more day to cover an area and make up for their lack of means.

Oliver Kulikowski, spokesperson for the Berlin-based rescue group Sea-Watch, said in a statement that “the Italian government’s new decree is a call to let people drown.”

“Forcing ships into port violates the duty to rescue should there be more people in distress at sea,” he added. ” We will also resist this attempt to criminalize civil sea rescue and deprive people on the move of their rights.”

Sea-Watch medical coordinator Hendrike Förster asserted that “the politically motivated allocation of distant ports endangers the health of rescued people and is intended to keep rescue ships out of the Mediterranean for as long as possible.”

“The Italian government thereby makes itself directly responsible for health consequences on board the rescue ships,” Förster added.

Since being elected three months ago on a xenophobic, anti-migrant platform, Meloni and her government have cracked down on rescue ship activity, claiming humanitarian groups are boosting, if not working with, human traffickers.

Within 48 hours of entering office, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi issued a directive prohibiting two rescue ships, Humanity 1 and Ocean Viking from entering Italian ports. Humanity 1 was allowed to dock in Catania, Sicily in November.

After being denied permission to disembark in Italy, Ocean Viking, which is run by the group SOS Méditerranée, sailed for France, where, amid a diplomatic row between the two countries, more than 200 migrants were allowed to come ashore after weeks at sea.

Ocean Viking has returned to Italy with another 113 rescued migrants aboard and is being forced to travel 900 nautical miles around the “boot” of Italy to Ravenna on the Adriatic coast in the country’s northeast.

The Italian Interior Ministry says around 102,000 asylum-seekers have disembarked in Italy this year, an increase from about 66,500 in 2021. In 2016, the figure was 181,000. Migrants, who often undertake the perilous voyage from North Africa in inflatable dinghies or rickety wooden fishing boats, are fleeing wars and other armed conflicts, the climate emergency, hunger, and economic privation in their home countries.

According to the International Office on Migration (IOM), more than 2,000 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year. Since record-keeping began in 2014, IOM says that over 25,000 migrants have gone missing while crossing the sea.

Migrant rescue organizations have been the target of Italian government surveillance and infiltration for years. Following an undercover sting operation based at least partly on the conspiracy theory that rescue groups are funded by “globalist elites” in league with Libyan traffickers, four members of the German NGO Jugend Rettet were arrested and are on trial in Sicily for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. The activists—who deny the charges—face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Twenty-one people in total—including the crews of the Jugend Rettet’s Iuventa rescue ship and members of groups including Sea-Watch, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders—stand charged with colluding with human traffickers to bring migrants into Italy in 2016 and 2017.

Jugend Rettet says Iuventa‘s crew rescued 2,000 people in the summer of 2016 alone.

“Instead of sea rescuers being charged for saving lives, Italian and European politicians should be charged with crimes against humanity,” a lawyer for the defendants told Open Democracy last year. “It is really the world upside down, and we will make it right.”