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EU court gives mixed guidance on migrant rescue boat case

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In mixed guidance for a case that tested Europe's response to refugee crises, the EU's top court stated Monday (1 August) that officials could detain migrants rescue ships but only if they can show there is a risk to their health, safety, or the environment.

Sea Watch, a German campaign group, launched a legal challenge against Sicilian port authorities after it detained two vessels of its rescue boats that had taken migrants to Sicily in 2020.

The Italian judges who heard the complaint sought guidance from the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is at the heart of the dispute over how to deal with the tens of thousand of African migrants crossing the border each year.

Sea Watch is an organization that patrols the Mediterranean for migrants in distress. Some European states believe this encourages migration. However, Sea Watch asserts that port authorities overstepped their authority by detaining vessels.

Palermo and Empedocle, both Sicilian ports, argued that they searched and detained these vessels because they were too crowded and not registered for rescue and search operations.

The Luxembourg-based EU court issued a mixed ruling that could have supported arguments from both sides.

The port authorities are authorized to detain and inspect ships in certain circumstances. However, the mere fact that a vessel carries people who have been rescued from the sea is not sufficient evidence.

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The court stated in a statement that "the number of persons aboard, even if greater, cannot therefore, in themselves, constitute a ground to a control."

However, it was suggested that regular search and rescue operations using vessels certified for cargo, such as the Sea Watch vessels, could be sufficient to justify port authority controls.

Sea Watch welcomed this ruling and said it provided legal security to NGOs as well as "a victory for maritime rescue".

It stated that "the fact that port state control can continue to be carried out on NGO ships" was a positive thing. They are meant to ensure ship safety which is very important to us. Arbitrary controls must, however, be ended.

The port authorities in Sicilia did not immediately respond.

The ECJ ruling outlines the current status of European law on this issue. The Sicilian court will decide if these specific cases justify the actions of the port authorities.

According to UNHCR data, 61,000 people completed the crossing in this year. An estimated 938 people died along the route.

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