Twenty charities on Thursday slammed new rules on rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean introduced by Italy's right-wing government, saying they go against international law and will result in more deaths.
Under the new decree, which came into effect this week, charity vessels must head "without delay" to the Italian port assigned to them after each rescue, which aid groups say will limit the number of people they can help.
Such vessels often perform multiple rescues of people who get into trouble attempting the world's most dangerous crossing, before heading back to shore.
"The Italian decree law contradicts international maritime, human rights and European law," the aid organisations, including Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said in a joint statement.
"The decreased presence of rescue ships will inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea," they added.
Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's new government has vowed to stop the charity vessels from performing what it considers to be a "ferry" service from North Africa.
But the order "to proceed immediately to a port, while other people are in distress at sea, contradicts the captain's obligation to render immediate assistance to people in distress, as enshrined in" international maritime law, the aid groups said.
The problem was compounded by Rome's recent move to frequently assign the ships ports which are further from search and rescue areas, they said.
"Both factors are designed to keep SAR (search and rescue) vessels out of the rescue area for prolonged periods and reduce their ability to assist people in distress," they said.
- Asylum requests -
The decree also states that charities must start gathering information from those rescued about their potential requests for asylum, and share the data with the Italian authorities.
The charities said it was "the duty of states to initiate this process and a private vessel is not an appropriate place for this".
"Asylum requests should be dealt with on dry land only, after disembarkation to a place of safety, and only once immediate needs are covered, as recently clarified by the UN Refugee Agency," they said.
Captains of ships which break the new rules face fines of up to 50,000 euros and can have their vessels confiscated.
Parliament has two months to convert the decree into law. It can undergo changes in that time.
The charities urged lawmakers to oppose the decree, and appealed for "a strong reaction" against it from Brussels and other European countries.
EU spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said Thursday that "no matter" the decree, Italy "must respect the international laws and the law of the sea".
Meloni's government took office in October, vowing to stop migrant landings in Italy, which reached more than 105,000 in 2022, according to the interior ministry.
Most of the arrivals were rescued and brought to shore by Italian navy or coastguard vessels, not charity ships.
At least 20,218 people have died or gone missing on the crossing since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).