Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Monday issued legal guidance for detaining migrant ships.
The ECJ pointed out in its ruling in the case involving German NGO Sea Watch and Italy that port authorities have the right to detain migrant ships only if they can prove a threat to “safety, health or the environment,” according to DW reporting.
The NGO brought the case before the ECJ after Italian port authorities in Palermo and Porto Empedocle detained its vessels Sea Watch 3 and Sea Watch 4 in 2020.
The NGO used the two ships to carry out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and disembarked hundreds of people in the two ports.
Port authorities noted that the two ships took on board significantly more people than they were authorized to and detained them over “technical and operational deficiencies giving rise to a clear risk to safety, health or the environment.”
The NGO accused port authorities of violating international law, after which an Italian court presented the ECJ with the case, calling on it to “clarify the extent of the port state’s powers of control and detention over ships operated by humanitarian organizations.”
Nearly 2,000 deaths
According to UN records, close to 2,000 people have gone missing or died last year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean in small boats and enter Europe illegally.
UN figures show that more than 53,000 illegal migrants made the journey to Italy last year, roughly 83% more compared to 2020.
Some EU member states have warned that the practice of NGOs picking up migrants in the Mediterranean encourages illegal migration.
The ECJ stressed that any additional people have taken on board by NGOs “must not be taken into account” when verifying compliance with safety rules.
“The number of persons on board, even if greater than that which is authorized, cannot, therefore, in itself, constitute a ground for a control,” the court stated.
It pointed out that port authorities can inspect ships after people have disembarked and stressed that, if inspections find deficiencies or violations, authorities can take “suitable, necessary and proportionate… corrective measures.”
The ECJ noted that a Sicilian court will rule whether port authorities were justified to detain the ships.