NGO rescue boats serve as a “pull factor” for migrants looking to cross the Mediterranean Sea, Home Affairs minister Byron Camilleri claimed on Thursday. 

His statement follows Italy’s decree to implement measures to fine NGOs that rescue migrants at sea and impound their ships. 

According to humanitarian NGOs, the new law breaches human rights, contradicts maritime law and could lead to more deaths at sea. 

However, on Thursday, Camilleri said he could understand Italy’s new hard-right government's stand: "many say that NGOs are a pull factor. What Italy is doing is aimed at preventing NGOs from being a pull factor".

Video: Chris Sant Fournier

“We have an excellent relationship with the Italian government,” the home affairs minister said, adding that the two countries will continue cooperating to "combat illegal immigration".

“It is not right that a person has to go through human traffickers to travel to Europe,” Camilleri said, adding that Malta is successfully fighting human trafficking and preventing deaths at sea.

Malta will also continue cooperating with the Libyan coastguard, he added. 

What's the new policy?

NGO missions in the central Mediterranean usually last several days, with boats completing different rescue operations and often taking hundreds of people onboard.

The new Italian policy will require rescue ships to call a port and sail to it immediately after a rescue, rather than remaining at sea looking for other migrant boats in distress.

Captains breaching these rules risk fines of up to €50,000. Repeated violations can result in the impoundment of the vessel.

In a joint statement, 20 search-and-rescue NGOs said the new Italian law will reduce rescue capacity at sea and make the central Mediterranean migration route even more dangerous. 

“The decree ostensibly targets SAR NGOs, but the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the central Mediterranean and finding themselves in situations of distress,” the statement said.

They claimed that as of 2014, civilian rescue ships have filled the void left “deliberately” by European states that discontinued their state-led SAR operations.

“Despite this, EU member states, most prominently Italy, have for years attempted to obstruct civilian SAR activities through defamation, administrative harassment as well as criminalising NGOs and activists."

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