Italian trial over refugee deaths raises concerns for maritime community

Refugees and migrants swimming to get assistance from crew members of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, off the coast of Italy. Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

A judge has indicted two Italian officials – Leopoldo Manna of the Italian coastguard and Luca Licciardi of the navy – on charges of manslaughter and negligence for their alleged role in the deaths of about 268 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea on 11 October 2013.

Speaking for the families as their legal representative, Arturo Salerni said that the families of the victims hoped to see these officials punished and seek reparations for their loss. Stating that this was another example of southern Europe’s failure to rescue vessels in distress and prevent the loss of life, he said, “I hope the trial shines a light on how the thousands and thousands of deaths in recent years in a highly monitored part of the sea were not a coincidence.”

The case, which will begin hearings in Rome on 3 December, has widespread implications for the maritime community with regard to the deaths of refugees at sea. Despite the International Maritime Organization (IMO) mandate for vessels per SOLAS and the search-and-rescue convention, vessels affording assistance to persons at sea have experienced increasingly hostile systems.

Thus, given Italy’s law penalising refugees at sea, the Italian court’s choice to assign responsibility for these deaths takes on wider implications for shipowners and ship masters caught between humanitarian needs and European response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

Namrata Nadkarni, head of maritime content at IHS Markit, has recently noted the Italian law penalising vessels that rescue refugees at sea. Nadkarni stated Italy’s “increasingly hard stance against allowing vessels that have rescued refugees to dock at its ports” has also led to a growing concern that captains involved in multiple rescues may find themselves arrested by the Italian government to prove a point.

In addition to this, captains and shipowners may also have to contend with crew wellbeing and financial concerns given the likelihood of them being detained in port as a result of these rescues, as well as consequent delays in planned routes and shipments.

According to Al Jazeera, the forthcoming trial will determine whether Italian and Maltese authorities delayed launching rescue operations and if this delay was responsible for the deaths of the refugees in question. Luca Ciaglia, Manna’s lawyer, noted that while the shipwreck was a huge tragedy, Malta was responsible for it because Maltese authorities were in charge of rescue operations. He also said that, unlike Italy, Malta is not seeking to establish any guilt on the part of its officials.