European court limits checks for migrant rescue vessels

BRUSSELS – The European Union’s highest court ruled on Monday that national maritime authorities cannot seize vessels involved in search and rescue work on suspicion that they may be overloaded due to the number of migrants that they snatched from the sea.

The decision by the European Court of Justice came in response to an appeal by German migrant aid group Sea-Watch. Two of the German group’s ships were forced to undergo inspections in Sicily in 2020 after disembarking migrants for taking on more people than they were allowed to carry.

Italian port authorities also deemed that the ships were not certified for search and rescue missions.

But the court clarified that the people rescued “should not be taken into account to check whether the rules of safety at sea have been respected. The number of people on board, even greater than that authorized, cannot therefore, in itself, constitute a reason for control. »

The Luxembourg-based ECJ also said national port authorities have the right to inspect ships to assess whether rules on working conditions, health and safety and the environment are being followed.

But he added that they “do not have the power to require proof that these vessels hold certificates other than those issued by the flag state”, which in the case of the Sea-Watch vessels was Germany. .

Sea-Watch described the court’s decision as a victory that means port authorities cannot arbitrarily detain ships and prevent them from doing their jobs.

“The decision provides clear legal certainty for NGOs and is a victory for rescue at sea. In the future, ships will therefore continue to do what they do best: rescuing people instead of being arbitrarily stranded at sea. port,” the organization said in a tweet.

Neither the EU nor any of its 27 countries are actively searching for people at risk in the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 1,000 people have died or gone missing so far this year, many of whom have tried to reach Europe since North Africa in non-navigable smugglers. boats.

But ships are required by international law to respond to any nearby distress calls.

Most migrants to Europe hope to reunite with family or find work, but many are denied asylum because they fled poverty, not persecution or war.

Migration is a key issue in Italy’s early parliamentary elections on September 25. Right-wing party leader Matteo Salvini has vowed to take a hard line on migration if his party comes to power in a centre-right alliance.

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