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Humanitarian Emergency in the Mediterranean: the Political and Legal Framework of Maritime Rescue

Recent events in the Mediterranean Sea have shed new light on the dangerous migration routes to Italian shores. On the morning of Sunday, February 26, a Turkish boat carrying 180 migrants capsized near Steccato di Cutro in Calabria, resulting in the tragic death of nearly 90 people (MSF Team, 2023). Frontex, the European Border, and the Coast Guard Agency had detected the vessel the night before and the Italian authorities were informed according to the established protocol. However, the rescue operation was delayed for several hours for reasons that remain unclear. Although the Guardia di Finanza (Italian financial police) dispatched two patrols to intercept the boat, their mission failed due to poor weather and sea conditions. Apparently, some misunderstandings occurred between the two state authorities involved, as the Frontex alert did not indicate a situation serious enough to warrant the intervention of the Coast Guard. The absence of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean that night – partly due to hostile legal action taken against them by the Italian government – further complicated the situation. Despite the ongoing investigations into the parties responsible for this tragedy, the exact sequence of events leading up to the shipwreck remains unclear (Il Post Editorial Staff, 2023). This disaster reveals the cultural, historical, and political dynamics that have contributed to its occurrence, which unfortunately is part of a larger framework of humanitarian emergencies in the Mediterranean linked to these migration routes. Given its implications for human rights, security, maritime jurisdiction, and national economies, this issue remains a controversial and highly debated topic within European borders, notably in Italy.

Figure 1. Mediterranean Sea Routes (Conant & Chwastik, 2015)

Italy has a long history of migration, both as a country of emigration and immigration. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, millions of Italians emigrated to North America, Australia, and other countries. However, it was only in recent decades that Italy has become a major destination for migrants and asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, highlighting the urgent need to regulate this influx (Ambrosetti & Paparusso, 2018). With its long coastline and proximity to North Africa, Italy's geographical position in the Mediterranean has made it a primary destination for migrants and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe. The legacy of Italian colonialism in Africa and the Middle East has also contributed to the creation of historical and cultural ties between Italy and these regions, thus leading to consistent migration flows (Colombo & Sciortino, 2004). This triggered significant political and social tensions within the country, as well as with other EU Member States, regarding the distribution of asylum seekers and the responsibility for managing migration flows.

The political climate surrounding migration policy in the country has always been complex and often contentious. In recent years especially, it has been marked by a shift towards right-wing populist parties that have been fuelling anti-immigrant sentiments among the population. Many Italians feel that the large influx of migrants has led to overcrowding, strains on public services, and competition for jobs. There have also been concerns about crime and security: some citizens blame migrants for an increase in criminal activity. This trend has been exacerbated by the economic crisis that hit Italy in 2008, leading to high unemployment rates and social tensions (Ambrosetti & Paparusso, 2018). Migration has thus become a key electoral issue, and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and far-right political parties has prompted the government to take a harder line on migration, raising concerns that such measures may violate certain principles of international law.

Figure 2. Illustration for the Financial Times article "Migration will drive western politics for decades to come" (Pudles, 2018)

International law and maritime rescue

The legal framework governing maritime rescue operations is complex and multifaceted, shaped by a number of international conventions, treaties, and agreements. These include the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Under international law, states have an obligation to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality or legal status. This is sanctioned by the UNCLOS, which establishes the basic legal framework for maritime SAR operations. UNCLOS also requires states to ensure the safety of the person assisted as a priority (United Nations Convention on the Law of The Sea, 1994). These obligations are based on the principles of humanity (Fast, 2015), respect for human life (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966), and the duty to render assistance (United Nations Convention on the Law of The Sea, 1994). In practice, this means that states must take all necessary measures to rescue persons in distress and to ensure their safety and well-being. Furthermore, according to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, states must also refrain from repatriating refugees and asylum seekers to countries where their lives or freedom would be in danger, a principle known as "non-refoulement".

Italy and EU immigration policies

Since its very foundation, in the political framework of the European Union, the focus has primarily been on deterring irregular migration through the externalization of borders, including measures such as border controls and cooperation with countries of origin and transit. The EU's external border agency, Frontex, has been tasked with coordinating these efforts (Frontex Team, n. d.). Its creation and constant reinforcement underscore the European tendency to contrast migration rather than regulate it and implement the social integration of migrants. The European dispositions on the matter have widely impacted the Italian migration policy, particularly in relation to SAR operations: Italy has criticized the EU for placing an unequal burden of rescue operations on the country and has called for a more equitable distribution of the responsibility among all EU member states. Furthermore, as part of the EU's externalization policy, Italy has been involved in several bilateral agreements with countries such as Libya to reduce the number of migrants arriving on European shores.

Figure 3. Cover illustration for "After the 'migration crisis': how Europe works to keep Africans in Africa" (Boughton, 2020)

To the extent of its power, Italy has taken a hard-line approach to migration, focusing on reducing the number of arrivals and deporting those who are not entitled to protection. In 2018, the Italian government implemented a policy of closing its ports to NGO ships carrying rescued migrants, leading to a standoff between the government and several NGOs. This disposition was eventually overturned by the Italian courts, but the government has continued to restrict the operations of these organizations in the Mediterranean (European Commission Team, 2023). This political positioning has had a significant impact on migrants and asylum seekers, especially in terms of their ability to access protection and assistance: the closure of Italian ports has reduced the number of rescue operations, leaving many migrants stranded at sea; the implementation of policies aimed at reducing the flow of migrants, such as restricting visa requirements, is argued to have increased illegal immigration.

As mentioned above, this approach to migration and the treatment of migrants has been scrutinized and criticized by various international organizations and human rights groups. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Italy had violated the prohibition of collective expulsions under the European Convention on Human Rights by returning migrants intercepted at sea to Libya, where they faced the risk of ill-treatment and torture ("Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy", 2012). In addition, in 2022 Magistratura Democratica, an independent Italian association of legal professionals, also criticized Italy's policies on migration and asylum, including closing ports to rescue ships and deploying military vessels to prevent them from reaching Italian waters (Tondo, 2022).

Figure 4. The perilous Mediterranean (Blow, 2020)

NGO Activities and Controversies

Regardless of their disputes with the Italian government, NGOs and other non-profit organizations have played a critical role in rescuing people in the Mediterranean. These organizations operate rescue vessels and work to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, and medical care for those in need. However, they have also faced controversy and criticism for their actions. One of the main controversies surrounding NGOs is the accusation of collusion with human traffickers. Some have claimed that rescue operations by these organizations actually aid and abet human traffickers by giving them the incentive to send more migrants and refugees out to sea. These allegations have been strongly denied by the organizations involved, but they have nonetheless created tensions with governments and other stakeholders. Others have claimed that the mere presence of these NGOs in the Mediterranean Sea acts as a “pull factor” for migrants, who are supposedly motivated to embark on such routes by a greater chance of being rescued. However, even those claims have been widely refuted by studies and research on the subject (Cusumano & Villa, 2020).

The controversy surrounding NGOs and their activities has had an impact on the provision of assistance and protection to migrants and asylum seekers. Some organizations have faced legal challenges, including criminal charges, and have been forced to reduce or cease their activities. A recent example is the case of Médecins Sans Frontières’ ship Geo Barents, which was detained for 20 days following a dispute with the Italian port authorities (MSF Team, 2023). This has created gaps in the provision of assistance and has left several migrants and asylum seekers without access to basic needs.

Figure 5. Immigrants on [the] Mediterranean Sea (Kamensky, 2018)

In conclusion, Italy's history of migration and the political climate surrounding it have contributed to the challenges faced in addressing the current situation in the Mediterranean. The country’s geographical location, colonial legacy, and domestic politics have all played a role in shaping its immigration policies, which have been criticized for failing to address the needs of migrants. The recent incident off the southern Italian coasts has highlighted the importance of international law and maritime rescue in protecting the rights and safety of migrants and asylum seekers. While Italy and the EU have obligations under international law to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea, NGOs and other organizations have played a crucial role in rescue and assistance in the Mediterranean. However, their activities have been controversial, with accusations of collusion with human traffickers and interference with state sovereignty. The victims of these contentions are those who flee their countries of origin searching for safety on European shores. The Cutro shipwreck is yet another tragic reminder of the urgent need for a coordinated, human-rights-based approach to migration policy in Europe. It highlights the challenges of balancing state sovereignty and human rights in the context of migration management and the need to promote a comprehensive and coordinated approach that respects the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, enhances the effectiveness of rescue operations, and addresses the root causes of migration.

Bibliographical References

MSF Team. "Italy: Over 60 people killed in Crotone shipwreck". (2023, February 28). Press Release. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International.

Il Post Editorial Staff. (2023, February 28). "Il naufragio in Calabria poteva essere evitato?". News website

Ambrosetti, E., & Paparusso, A. (2018). "Migrants or Refugees? The Evolving Governance of Migration Flows in Italy during the 'Refugee Crisis'". Revue Européenne Des Migrations Internationales, 34(1), 151–171.

Colombo, A. D., & Sciortino, G. (2004). "Italian immigration: the origins, nature and evolution of Italy’s migratory systems". Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 9(1), 49–70.

United Nations Convention on the Law of The Sea. (1994). Available online: Last seen: 22/03/2023.

Fast, L. (2015). "Unpacking the principle of humanity: Tensions and implications". International Review of the Red Cross, 97(897-898), 111–131.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (1966). Available online: Last seen: 22/03/2023.

Frontex Team. (n. d.). About Us – Website Section. "Tasks & Mission".

European Commission Team. Governance of migrant integration in Italy. (2023). European Website on Integration.

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Grand Chamber. (2012). "Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy". Available online:{%22itemid%22:[%22001-109231%22]}. Last seen: 23/03/2023.

Tondo, L. (2022, November 8). "Italy’s migration policy is in breach of international law, say legal experts". The Guardian.

Cusumano, E., & Villa, M. (2020). "Sea rescue NGOs : a pull factor of irregular migration?". European University Institute.

MSF Team. (2021, July 4th). "MSF is determined to return to sea to save lives after Geo Barents detained in Italy". Press Release. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International.

Visual Sources

Cover image. Bertuccioli, E. (2021, April 27). EU migrants rescue plan. Cartoon Movement. URL:

Figure 1. Conant, E., & Chwastik, M. W. (2015, September 19). The World’s Congested Human Migration Routes in 5 Maps. National Geographic. URL:

Figure 2. Pudles, D. (2018, May 7). "Migration will drive western politics for decades to come". Financial Times.

Figure 3. Boughton, C. (2020, May). Cover illustration for “After the ‘migration crisis’: how Europe works to keep Africans in Africa” – a series by Beyond Trafficking and Slavery (Opendemocracy). URL:

Figure 4. Blow, P. (2020, July 16). The perilous Mediterranean. International Rescue Committee website. URL:

Figure 5. Kamensky, M. (2018, June 25). Immigrants on Mediterranean Sea. Cartoon Movement. URL:


Author Photo

Chiara Mamini

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