Fleeing Libya in times of Covid: the health emergency and Italy’s closed harbours

On the 7th of April 2020, the Italian government issued a decree that classified Italian ports as unsafe for the disembarkation of people rescued at sea. More precisely, the decree states that “for the entire duration of the national health emergency, due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, Italian ports cannot ensure the necessary requirements to be classified and defined as a ‘Place of Safety’, as established by the SAR Convention, for the rescue operations carried out by boats flying a foreign flag outside the Italian SAR zone”.[1]

The decree was signed after the only civil rescue vessel active at that moment, Alan Kurdi, had rescued 150 people in international waters off the Libyan coast and was waiting for a port to disembark. In the same week, 124 people managed to autonomously reach Lampedusa, and approximately 200 people were intercepted and brought back to Libya.[2] In the next days, Malta followed the Italian decision and closed its ports, while the al-Sarraj government - who at that point had lost control over Tripoli's port because of the conflict [3] - declared Libyan ports unsafe due to the pandemic outbreak as well.

The Italian decree, followed by Italy’s neighbouring countries, raises numerous human rights concerns as it justifies the closure of harbours in the name of the health emergency. The policy of closed harbours has violent and lethal consequences in the Mediterranean: it makes rescue operations more complicated, effectively stranding rescued people and SAR personnel on small boats in the middle of the sea for multiple days. Even worse, when there are no civil rescue vessels in proximity, the possibility of reaching Europe alive is minimal for the people crossing, as neither the EU nor any of its member states have active SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean at the moment. The only other option is to be intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and being brought back to Libya.

It is evident then, that the Italian decision is paradoxical at least, as it uses the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritise stricter mechanisms for border control over the protection of life. As many have noticed, this decree disregards many of the fundamental rights of the individual.[4] In the name of the health emergency, this measure effectively suspends the right to health, the right to life, the right to personal freedom, and the right to asylum for the migrants fleeing Libya.[5]

While it has to be acknowledged that Italy has been one of the most hit countries during this pandemic and that exceptional measures need to be put in place to face it, they cannot disregard such fundamental rights and coerce people into situations of torture and inhumane and degrading treatments. Forcing people at sea without appropriate assistance, hindering rescue operations, preventing disembarkation in a safe country, sending people back to abuses, rapes, tortures, killings, and imprisonments is against national and international laws even during a pandemic.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that we all have to cooperate to preserve the life of the most vulnerable: closing borders to the people fleeing from violence and death is not taking us in that direction.

Eva is an Italian student, currently undertaking a Master’s in Global Refugee Studies at the University of Aalborg. Previously, Eva interned with Sos Mediterranee, one of the Search and Rescue NGOs operating in the Central Mediterranean. Through her studies and personal experience, she became very interested and critical of the current policies which have been adopted to ‘manage’ migration, especially in the Southern border and the Mediterranean.


[1]ASGI (Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione), April 2020: https://www.asgi.it/notizie/lo-stato-di-emergenza-sanitaria-e-la-chiusura-dei-porti-sommersi-e-salvati/#easy-footnote-1-39537

[2]ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles), April 2020: https://www.ecre.org/med-150-stranded-at-sea-as-malta-and-italy-declare-ports-unsafe/

[3] Ibid.

[4]ASGI (Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione), April 2020: https://www.asgi.it/notizie/lo-stato-di-emergenza-sanitaria-e-la-chiusura-dei-porti-sommersi-e-salvati/#easy-footnote-1-39537

[5] Ibid.