A child disembarks from the Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) Geo Barents ship

A child disembarks from the Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) Geo Barents ship after it docked at La Spezia harbor, Italy, on January 28, 2023.

(Photo: Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Refugees 'Will Pay the Real Price,' Says Charity After Italy Detains Rescue Ship

"This is simply the wrong way to address this humanitarian crisis," said the U.N. human rights chief of a new law that imposes new regulations on migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean.

The international charity Medicins Sans Frontiers said late Thursday it is "assessing what legal actions" the group can take to contest a new anti-refugee law passed in Italy, under which the group was informed its rescue ship is being detained and prevented from rescuing migrants for 20 days.

The group, also known as MSF or its English name, Doctors Without Borders, said Italian authorities entered its rescue ship, Geo Barents, on Thursday evening to inform the crew of a new law passed by the country's parliament.

The law requires ships to request access to a port and proceed to Italy "without delay" after rescuing migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, like the more than 630,000 people whose lives have been saved by Geo Barents and other ships since 2015.

Charities say the new "code of conduct" also requires crews to dock in ports in northern Italy, far from where rescues take place.

Previously, the Geo Barents has conducted multiple rescues and brought dozens of people on board before proceeding to a port where they can disembark in Italy and apply for asylum.

The ship is now in administrative detention for 20 days and MSF has been ordered to pay a $10,500 fine.

"This is not acceptable!" tweeted MSF.

Organizations that disobey the new code could be fined more than $53,000 and have their rescue vessels impounded, Al Jazeera reported.

"Today our team was supposed to be back at sea to prevent more deaths in the Central Mediterranean," said MSF Friday. "Who will pay the real price of the detention imposed on Geo Barents?"

The International Organization for Migration says that less than two months into 2023, at least 157 people have been reported as missing and presumed dead after attempting to cross the Mediterranean from northern Africa.

Far-right Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni has been denounced by human rights experts for her hardline anti-immigration stance. Her government has previously refused to allow rescue ships to enter ports and has barred refugees from leaving ships after they arrive in Italy.

Meloni's government has claimed the Mediterranean rescues by MSF and other humanitarian groups encourage people to make the dangerous journey across the sea, but MSF has said its work is vital, as refugees will attempt to reach Europe regardless of whether they believe they'll encounter a rescue ship.

"We all watch with horror the plight of those crossing the Mediterranean, and the desire to end that suffering is profound," said U.N. human rights high commissioner Volker Türk this week, after the new code of conduct was proposed. "But this is simply the wrong way to address this humanitarian crisis. The law would effectively punish both migrants and those who seek to help them. This penalization of humanitarian actions would likely deter human rights and humanitarian organizations from doing their crucial work."

Other rights groups expressed solidarity with MSF after it temporarily lost its ability to operate Geo Barents.

"Once again, the central Mediterranean is emptied of a vital rescue asset," said SOS Mediterranee, which operates a ship called Ocean Viking. "Civil rescue ships are only filling the deadly gap left by E.U. States in the central Mediterranean. Criminalization of search and rescue at sea must end."

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