Since 2018, Italy and Malta have restricted access to their ports for NGO migrant rescue vessels. While both countries have faced criticism for this policy, it should be noted that since the 1990s, most EU member states have erected barriers along their borders to prevent irregular migration. There is, therefore, a degree of hypocrisy in other EU states portraying Italy and Malta as Europe’s ‘black sheep’ over their approach to the issue.
Tensions within the EU over responsibility for migrants rescued at sea escalated in June 2018 when Italy and Malta effectively closed their ports to NGO migrant rescue vessels. Although the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea is a fundamental rule of international law, it is not clear which state is legally responsible for their disembarkation. In practice, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that the master of a ship is obliged to rescue persons in distress at sea, yet it does not specify the procedures for disembarkation of such persons.