Italy: Charges dropped against rescues at sea

Though the court ruling sweeps away seven years of falsehoods, attacks on humanitarian search and rescue operations continue.

MSF search and rescue teams rescue migrants from a capsized boat in the Central Mediterranean.

MSF teams rescue survivors from an overcrowded boat that capsized in March. | Mediterranean Sea 2024 © Simone Boccaccio

ROME, April 19, 2024 — After seven years of false accusations, defamatory statements, and a blatant criminalization campaign toward organizations performing search and rescue operations at sea, the investigation launched in 2016 by the prosecutor's office in Trapani, a city in Sicily, Italy, was dismissed today.

The case saw Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other organizations conducting search and rescue operations investigated on the unfounded charge of aiding and abetting “illegal immigration.” It involved a mammoth indictment based on inferences, wiretaps, false statements, and an interpretation of rescue mechanisms deliberately distorted to present them as criminal acts.

However, after a two-year preliminary hearing, the same prosecutor's office that opened the investigation acknowledged that the evidence showed that the NGOs were working with the sole intention of saving lives and asked that the case not continue to trial. The judge has now definitively closed the case, citing the baselessness of the accusations and erasing any suspicion of collaboration with smugglers.

Saving lives is not a crime, it is a moral and legal obligation, a fundamental act of humanity which simply must be done.

Tommaso Fabbri, former MSF head of mission

"These unfounded accusations have attempted to tarnish the work of humanitarian search and rescue teams for years. They were intended to remove vessels from the sea and to counter their efforts to save lives and bear witness. Now these accusations have collapsed," said Dr. Christos Christou, international president of MSF. "Our thoughts are with our colleagues from MSF and other organizations who have been living under the weight of accusations for legitimately doing their jobs: saving people in distress at sea, in full transparency and compliance with the law," added Dr. Christou.

Harmful policies inhibit search and rescue 

During the seven-year limbo waiting for the ruling on this case, attacks on search and rescue have continued through a series of harmful policies. These include restrictive laws, the detention of civilian vessels, and financial support for the Libyan Coast Guard, which hinders rescues and exacerbates suffering and human rights violations for people forcibly returned to Libya. Meanwhile, deaths in the Mediterranean Sea have continued to rise: 2023 was the year with the highest number of deaths since the allegations were first made against our team members in 2017.

According to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, at least 63 legal or administrative cases have been brought by EU states against search and rescue NGOs (as of June 2023). In the past year, Italian authorities have detained humanitarian rescue vessels 21 times, amounting to a total of 460 days the vessels were prevented from assisting people in distress at sea. MSF's search and rescue vessel, Geo Barents, has just resumed operations after 20 days of unjust detention on the fallacious charge of endangering people’s lives, after a Libyan patrol boat violently interrupted an ongoing rescue operation.

In addition, humanitarian ships are continuously being assigned distant ports in the north of Italy to disembark survivors, keeping them away from the search and rescue area, while people lives are at risk.

Together with cynical policies that outsource border management to unsafe third countries like Libya, Italy and other EU members are turning their back on people seeking safety in Europe, contributing to human suffering and ultimately showing a complete disregard for the protection of human lives.

"In these years, the Italian authorities have invested enormous resources in creating barriers to humanitarian action and in policies of death, while doing nothing to stop shipwrecks and open legal and safe routes for people fleeing through the Mediterranean," said Tommaso Fabbri, who is a former head of mission for MSF and was involved in the case. “Saving lives is not a crime, it is a moral and legal obligation, a fundamental act of humanity which simply must be done. Stop criminalizing solidarity. All efforts must go toward preventing unacceptable death and suffering and guaranteeing the right to rescue, bringing back humanity and the right to life in the Mediterranean Sea."

"Our aid workers never stopped operating across the world, just as our ships never stopped saving lives at sea,” said Dr. Christou. “This has been our best response to all the accusations.”

About search and rescue at MSF

MSF teams first began search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in 2015 to fill the void left by the closure of the Italian search and rescue program Mare Nostrum in November 2014. Since then, eight MSF ships have helped save more than 92,000 lives. Despite the barriers, MSF has not ceased its search and rescue operations, and to this day its teams are engaged in rescue operations aboard the current vessel, Geo Barents.  

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