Guardia Costiera officers look on as the Sea-Eye 4 rescue ship (C) prepares to dock with 106 migrants onboard at the port of Naples, Italy, 06 February 2023. EPA-EFE/CESARE ABBATE


Italy impounds German NGO’s ‘rescue ship’ Sea-Eye 4 for 60 days


Italian authorities have detained for 60 days the German ship Sea-Eye 4, a former offshore supply vessel repurposed for at-sea rescue operations and run by German NGO Sea-Eye. The detention came after it picked up 145 migrants.

The operation on March 6-7 took place despite the apparent willingness of the Libyan coast guard to intervene to complete the rescue. The ship’s latest detention was handed down by Italian authorities on March 11, along with a fine of €3,333.

The crew of the Sea Eye 4 said they declined Libyan intervention as they did not want to “participate in abductions” and called the detainment “politically motivated”.

The Italian Government’s Piantedosi decree, implemented last year and named after Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, has tightened the way such so-called rescue ships can operate.

When they pick up and bring migrants to shore, these vessels are now obliged to head to a predetermined port and no longer carry out any other operations at sea.

Sea-Eye 4 is a repeat offender; in the summer of 2023 it was among ships barred from leaving Italy’s Salerno Port for 20 days. It had already been detained earlier the same year.

The German ship’s appeal against Italian orders to head without delay for a port of assignment after intervention fell on deaf ears as there is no requirement for any suspension within the decree.

According to Sea-Eye, handing migrants back to the Libyan coast guard would have made it and the ship’s crew accomplices to a “pushback”, given the ongoing civil war in the North African country.

The term “pushback” has been described by the UN Human Rights Office as any of “various measures taken by States which result in migrants, including asylum seekers, being summarily forced back to the country from where they attempted to cross or have crossed an international border without access to international protection or asylum procedures or denied of any individual assessment on their protection needs, which may lead to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement”.

Gorden Isler, chairman of Sea-Eye, said it was essentially “illegal and deeply inhumane to return people to a bloody conflict from which they have fled”.

“Our refusal to participate in these heinous abductions is punishable by ship blockades and fines.

“Only Germany, as the flag state, is entitled to sanction our ship for misconduct in international waters,” Isler insisted.

According to Italian authorities, that would only be the case if a ship took irregular migrants to a German port and, unless that was the case, its crew and the ship’s operator should adhere to Italian laws when their vessel enters Italian territorial waters.

Furthermore, according to international law, when an individual is rescued in international waters and taken aboard a ship, the country whose flag that vessel flies becomes the responsible authority.

In this case, that would mean the German Government would have to take on all responsibilities regarding those migrants.