Rescue charities say new Italian rules will cause migrant deaths

ROME (Reuters) - Sea rescue charities on Thursday condemned tough anti-immigration measures recently introduced by the Italian government, saying the new rules will cause ever more deaths in the Mediterranean.

The decree, which was introduced last week, says charity ships must 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 it now happens.

Ship captains risk fines of 50,000 euros ($52,760) and having their boats impounded if they break the rules.

A group of 17 NGOs released a joint statement to express their "gravest concerns" over the law drawn up by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's conservative coalition, which won power last year promising to cut migrant flows to Italy.

They accused Italy of seeking to reduce the amount of time charity vessels can remain on search and rescue (SAR) missions, pointing to a recent practice whereby boats have been told to take migrants plucked from the sea to distant ports.

"NGOs are already overstretched due to the absence of a state-run SAR operation, and the decreased presence of rescue ships will inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea," the statement said.

Among the groups that signed the document were Doctors Without Borders, Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch and SOS Humanity.

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.

The NGO statement called on Italy to withdraw the decree and instead work with the rest of the European Union to bolster rescue operations and prevent migrant deaths.

Meloni has defended the new rules and accused the charities of playing into the hands of human traffickers, saying they act as a taxi service for people without visas to reach Europe.

"If you come across a boat and save people you have to take them to safety. You don't keep them on board and continue to make other multiple rescues until the boat is full," she said in a video released on Instagram this week.

($1 = 0.9477 euros)

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)