ROME (Reuters) - Italy's new anti-immigration decree that aims to curtail NGO rescue ships should be scrapped as it violates international law, a top Catholic bishop said, in an unusually blunt attack against Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's right-wing government.
The decree, which was introduced in December, forces 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, as generally used to occur.
"The fate of the decree should only be its repeal," Gian Carlo Perego, who heads the Italian Bishops' Conference commission dealing with migration issues, said on Monday in a parliamentary hearing.
With captains risking fines of up to 50,000 euros ($54,180) and the impounding of their charity vessels if they break the rules, a group of 17 NGOs this month expressed their "gravest concerns" about the law.
Effectively siding with the NGOs, Perego said the decree would increase the likelihood of deaths at sea, while failing to tackle the root causes of migration and the operational challenges faced by Italy's migrant reception facilities.
Perego called on Meloni's government to focus on cooperation with Libyan authorities in the fight against human trafficking, rather than target the activities of NGOs, which pro-government figures have accused of abetting illegal migration.
In December Meloni said the decree, while respecting international law, aimed to put a brake on NGOs ships acting as "ferry boats" for migrants, going "back and forth with human traffickers to shuttle people from one country to the other".
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 coastguard, private vessels or arriving on their own.
Some 105,140 migrants reached Italy in 2022, interior ministry data shows, 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.
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(Reporting by Federico Maccioni; editing by Alvise Armellini and Vin Shahrestani)