The Open Arms ship docked in the harbour. (Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images)


Italy detains three NGO migrant ships


Italian authorities have seized three ships in the past few days used to transport migrants to Europe. The vessels belong to the NGOs Open Arms, Sea-Eye and Sea-Watch.

The Spanish organisation Open Arms reported being fined €10,000. Its ship was confiscated on August 22 and must remain at the Tuscan port of Carrara for 20 days. The action was taken after it was claimed the crew disregarded instructions issued by Italian authorities, who had advised against conducting two “rescue missions” in the Mediterranean Sea.

Likewise, the German NGO Sea-Eye revealed that it was fined around €3,333. Subsequently, its ship CI4 was detained and impounded for 20 days after transporting 114 migrants to the southern port of Salerno.

The third vessel, Aurora, operated by the German group Sea-Watch, was seized on August 21 after transporting 76 migrants to the island of Lampedusa.

New Italian legislation obliges NGO ships to return to a harbour chosen by the government after they pick up migrants. The NGOs claim that limits the number of rescue operations they can undertake.


Aurora was detained after refusing Italian orders to sail to Sicily, instead docking at the closer location of Lampedusa. The ship’s crew stated that it was running out of fuel and drinking water.

Critics of the NGO’s actions said there are already too many migrants at Lampedusa and further noted that if the ship lacked enough fuel and water, that proves it was not fit for its mission, or worse, its actions were a deliberate strategy to force Italy to accept the migrants onboard.

In June, a court decided it was the prerogative of the Italian interior ministry to determine where such ships must land. The judge added that the only parties that had a duty to accept migrants are those of the International Maritime Organisation-defined Search and Rescue zone (covering the African countries of departure) or the country under whose flag the vessel operates.

The head of the CI4 mission Arnaud Panos, referred to the action against it as “a politically motivated attack on humanitarian action that will cost lives”.

“We are accused of carrying out multiple rescue missions,” said Sea Eye chairman Gorden Isler. “But if we didn’t, there would have been deaths.” According to Isler, the Italian rules are in conflict with international law.

In a press release, Sea Watch also took a swipe at the European Union, lamenting the situation in Tunisia after Europe made a deal to provide cash to Tunis in exchange for stronger border controls in a bid to limit migrant flows.

“In Tunisia, genuine racist pogroms against persecuted migrants have been occurring over the past few weeks,” the NGO said. “These migrants are being deported to the desert borders of the country, where there is no asylum and reception system, and where the fundamental human rights of migrants are not ensured.”

Despite the measures of the conservative Italian Government, more than 105,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year, more than double the number over the same period in 2022, according to figures from the interior ministry.

The Mediterranean crossing is one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world. According to the International Organisation for Migration, almost 28,000 people have gone missing trying to cross the sea since 2014.

The United Nations estimates more than 2,000 people died trying to reach Europe via that route in 2023. Some experts say that the NGOs encourage migrants to take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats in the hope of getting picked up and transported to Europe.