ROME (Reuters) - Italy's rightist government has approved measures to fine charities who rescue migrants at sea and impound their ships if they break a new, tougher set of rules - a move that one campaign group said could threaten lives.
A cabinet decree approved late on Wednesday, seen by Reuters, said these ships should request a port and sail to it "without delay" after a rescue, rather than remain at sea looking for other migrant boats in distress.
Currently the missions of charities, or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in the central Mediterranean usually last several days, with charity boats completing different rescue operations and often taking hundreds of people onboard.
The NGOs' ships must also inform those onboard that they can ask for international protection anywhere in the European Union, the decree said.
Captains breaching these rules risk fines of up to 50,000 euros ($53,175), and repeated violations can result in the impoundment of the vessel, it added.
Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government has targeted the activities of sea rescue charities, accusing them of facilitating the work of people traffickers amid a surge in arrivals.
The charities dismiss the allegations.
Riccardo Gatti, who is in charge of a rescue ship run by the Doctors Without Borders Charity, told daily la Repubblica on Thursday that the decree was part of a strategy that "increases the risk of death for thousands of people."
The rules making it more difficult to carry out multiple rescues may flout international conventions and were "ethically unacceptable," he said.
Almost 104,000 migrants have disembarked in Italy so far in 2022, interior ministry data shows, compared with around 67,000 in the same period last year, 34,000 in 2020 and a peak of more than 181,000 in 2016.
A document from the office of Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said only around 10% of those who arrived in Italy in 2022 were brought ashore by NGO boats.
However, it also said these boats acted as a "pull factor" for those making the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean from Libya. The NGOs say data shows their presence at sea does not encourage migrants to depart.
The question of how to handle immigration in the largely border-free European Union has been a source of tensions for years. Italy and Spain, where most boats arrive, have long said EU allies must take on more migrants arriving on their shores.
The issue triggered a diplomatic row in November between Italy and France, after Rome refused to let a charity boat carrying around 200 people dock in its ports, and the vessel eventually sailed to France.
(This story has been corrected to say that 34,000 immigrants disembarked in 2020, not 2021; amends numbers to reflect latest data in paragraph 10)
(Additional reporting by Alvise Armellini and Gavin Jones, editing by Gavin Jones and Andrew Heavens)