Nautilus has condemned as 'draconian' new laws passed by Italy on August 5 which could see masters of private rescue ships fined up to €1m for disembarking refugees or defying refusals to enter Italian waters.
The text, adopted by Italian lawmakers in a confidence vote, gives hard-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini more authority to block ships carrying rescued migrants from entering Italian waters.
Vessels involved in humanitarian work can be confiscated and masters thrown in jail.
'It is very concerning that Italy has passed such a draconian law, which sharply increases the sanctions against masters of ships belonging to private rescue organisations,' Nautilus International director of legal services Charles Boyle said.
'Many of these missions will be of the type anticipated under the general international obligations (which apply to all ships) under UNCLOS to rescue persons found at sea in danger, and the SOLAS duty to proceed to rescue on receiving information about persons in distress at sea.
'The EU Facilitation Directive (2002/90) gives Member States power to exclude from liability for illegal transit of non-EEA citizens, cases in which humanitarian assistance was provided. Italy has not acted within the letter or spirit of this exception and has significantly raised the stakes indeed for involved seafarers.'
The UN's refugee agency voiced concern over the law demanding that humanitarian work 'not be criminalised or stigmatised'.
'Imposing financial or other penalties on shipmasters could deter or impede sea rescue activities by private vessels at a time when European states have largely withdrawn from rescue efforts in the Central Mediterranean,' the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.
The UN migrant agency (IOM) says at least 840 people have gone missing so far this year trying to cross from Libya’s coast to Europe, most of them in the central Mediterranean.
Nautilus urged any member who finds themselves being detained for involvement in such matters to contact the union immediately, through Nautilus 24/7 if necessary.
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Amnesty calls for political relief
Amnesty International has called for a Spanish rescue ship with 121 people onboard – including 30 children and two babies – caught in a stand-off between the Italian, Maltese and Spanish authorities to be allowed to dock.
The Proactiva Open Arms is stranded at sea in sweltering heat and overcrowded conditions 30 nautical miles from Italy, between Malta and Lampedusa.
The refugees have been on the vessel for seven days, since they were rescued in international waters on 1 and 2 August. The first rescue took place near the coast of Libya and the second close to a Maltese search-and-rescue zone
Barcelona-based NGO Open Arms rescued 55 people from a sinking raft and a further 69 people from another boat.
New rescue vessel launched
French NGO SOS Méditerranée and Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without borders) have chartered a new rescue ship to replace the Aquarius, which was refused flag registration last year.
The Norwegian flagged Ocean Viking is equipped with an on-board hospital, four semi-rigid rescue crafts and a helicopter landing bay and can accommodate 200-300 rescued migrants in humane conditions.
'People are dying as there are fewer rescue ships in the Mediterranean, meaning "solutions" are either to drown or return to Libya', SOS Méditerranée president François Thomas said.
In June, Carola Rackete, German captain of the humanitarian vessel Sea-Watch was held in Lampedusa, before being freed despite protests from Italian anti-migrant Interior minister Matteo Salvini.
Mr Thomas said that Ocean Viking would work in strict respect for maritime law but would not let migrants die in the Libyan zone and would convey them to a safe port.