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The ‘Open Arms’ case: Reconciling the notion of ‘place of safety’ with the human rights of migrants

Published on May 21, 2018        Author: 

The work of the NGOs rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea has been the subject of much controversy. One of the most recent cases regards the NGO Proactiva Open Arms: it has been accused of smuggling migrants during rescue operations at sea, and its rescue ship was impounded by the Italian authorities. This post examines the decision issued on 16 April 2018 by the pre-trial judge of Ragusa (Sicily) that ordered the release of the Open Arms vessel.

The relevance of this case is twofold. It obliquely tackles the legitimacy of the ‘pull-back’ agreement between Italy and Libya, as part of which the two states agree to collaborate with the aim of returning migrants to Libya, and which was recently challenged before the European Court of Human Rights (see this previous EJIL:Talk! post). Secondly, the decision, despite being just a pre-trial order, offers interesting insights into a contested area of international law which is gaining increase salience, i.e. the intersection between the Law of the Sea and the human rights of migrants.

This post argues that the order issued on 16 April is an important step forward in the definition of the notion of ‘place of safety’. International law merely states that people rescued at sea shall be delivered to a ‘place of safety’, but provides no definition of it (3.1.9. of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue 1979, “SAR Convention”). The decision by the judge in Ragusa interprets ‘place of safety’ in accordance with the human rights of migrants, and rightly overcomes inappropriate distinctions based on migrants’ statuses. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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