NGOs are sounding the alarm about Italy's new compulsory code of conduct for search-and-rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean, warning the law is incompatible with international law and will put vulnerable people at unnecessary risk.
The Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based human rights organisation unrelated to the European Union, has raised similar concerns and demands the text's withdrawal unless changes are made.
Among its provisions, the Italian code compels ships to disembark as soon as the first rescue operation is completed, without deliberately spending additional time looking for more migrants who might remain lost at sea.
The ships are then asked to sail straight to the designated port of safety, regardless of its location, and avoid the transfer of migrants to larger vessels, a process known as trans-shipment that helps alleviate the burden of small-sized boats.
"For us, it's a shame, because it's a one-sided code," Till Rummenhohl, head of operations at SOS Humanity, told Euronews.
"When we rescue one boat, we often already hear from the survivors that there have been more shipwrecks, more people are missing at sea. So, for us, it's difficult to then just step out of the scene, especially as we would have the capacity to rescue more people."
In recent months, Italian authorities have designated safe ports in central and northern Italy instead of the nearby southern region, forcing ships to undertake longer and more expensive journeys.
"Sailing so further north, while many other suitable ports for disembarkation that are much closer, is not reasonable from a maritime law perspective," Nicola Stalla, deputy director of operations at SOS Mediterranée, told Euronews.
"The fuel consumption to reach these faraway ports has a significant impact on the finances that would be otherwise available to conduct more operations."
The new code is enshrined in a decree issued by the hard-right government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni that went into effect in early January, pending a full legislative process.
The rules are compulsory and envision administrative fines of up to €50,000 for repeated offenses, which can lead to the seizure of the ship itself.
Rome argues the code is necessary to draw a distinction between "occasional" and "systematic" rescue operations, and crack down on irregular border crossings after over 102,000 episodes were recorded last year across the Central Mediterranean route.
"A shipwreck and a rescue are occasional events. Systematic searching, which encourages departures, is different," Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi has said.
"The presence of the NGOs has got dinghies, not well-structured boats, making departures. This is the phenomenon that we have registered."
But civil society organisations counter these claims, saying their search-and-rescue operations, whether regular or intermittent, are vital to save lives at sea and fill the gap left by governments. They also take aim at what they see as legislative overreach incompatible with long-established conventions.
Sea-Eye says the code of conduct is "likely to be unlawful" because Rome is attempting to regulate the actions of foreign-owned ships unfolding beyond Italian territorial seas, which under international law are set at 12 nautical miles from the country's baseline.
"Italy cannot dictate how rescue operations in international waters are to be conducted, as this is a matter for the flag state," Sea-Eye said in a statement.
'Something really inhumane'
Controversially, the code compels NGO workers to provide information on how to request international protection and start collecting personal data on potential asylum-seekers, which is then supposed to be passed on to Italian authorities.
Organisations like Sea-Eye, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), SOS Humanity and SOS Mediterranée warn this provision shifts the responsibility from state officials to private employees.
"This type of activity is a specific activity for which there are specific authorities, bodies in charge, that normally carry these information sessions on dry land. So, in principle, a vessel at sea is not required to have competent personnel to provide this kind of informative sessions (about asylum)," said Nicola Stalla.
"There's a requirement to collect expressions of interest from people who might want to apply for asylum and to provide authorities with this data, which again is something that appears to qualify as the start of the process for the screening of the (asylum) application while the people are still at sea."
Till Rummenhohl, from SOS Humanity, agreed, saying the interrogation of "very vulnerable and very confused" people about their future exceeds the mandate of rescue ships.
"Having this process on board is just, in our opinion, something really inhumane," Rummenhohl said.
Meanwhile, as the decree makes its way through the Italian parliament, the Council of Europe has entered the fray and asked for amendments to align the text with Italy's international obligations.
In a letter addressed to Matteo Piantedosi, Dunja Mijatović, the council's commissioner for human rights, openly criticised the code's "vagueness" and the obligation of disembarkation "wihout delay."
"This prolongs the suffering of people saved at sea and unduly delays the provision of adequate assistance to meet their basic needs. It unnecessarily exposes the people onboard to the potential dangers of adverse weather conditions," Mijatović wrote.
"Prolonged stay onboard tends to lead to the rapid deterioration of the health situation of all involved, and risks exacerbating the condition of vulnerable individuals onboard."
Italy's Interior Minister did not immediately reply to a Euronews request for comment.
Asked about the letter, the European Commission, which has repeatedly said all EU member states have the responsibility to save lives at sea, refused to be drawn in the debate.
"We have seen the opinion, but we're not in a position to give a comment now," a Commission spokesperson said on Monday.
"Our dialogue with the Italian authorities continues."