Charity vessels operating in the Mediterranean were detained at least 13 times last year under an Italian decree that curtails rescue efforts, according to civil society groups.

The latest incident saw the Ocean Viking docked by Italy on 31 December, and for the second time in two months, under the decree that requires them to immediately, and after each rescue, sail to often distant ports.

Ocean Viking says it was faulted after having made a slight deviation from a three-day return journey to disembark some 244 people it had already rescued.

A distress call from a boat carrying 70 people 15 nautical miles away from the Ocean Viking had sent the rescuers towards the alert.

“An updated position of the boat in distress later showed it was 60 nautical miles further north, at which point, the Ocean Viking, no longer in position to render assistance immediately resumed course,” it said, in a statement.

The Ocean Viking will now be detained for 20 days in a policy introduced last January by prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government.

The distant ports assigned under the decree means the Ocean Viking clocked an extra 21,000km — adding some €500,000 in fuel costs — for the whole of last year.

A handful of NGOs over the summer protested against the decree, demanding that an inquiry commission be set up to investigate its legality.

Among the protesters is Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose boat Geo Barents was also detained early last year for 20 days.

In late December, they rescued over 330 people and were ordered to disembark them in the northern Italian port city of Ravenna, adding four days of sailing.

In March, the Louise Michel rescue boat was also detained for 20 days after rescuing 180 people.

“Italy instructed near-empty civil rescue ships to return to distant ports even though they had space for many more people following their first rescue,” it said.

It also comes at a time when at least 2,700 people have either died or were lost at sea in the Mediterranean over the past year, according to the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM).

It is a figure that has continued to climb each year since 2018, posing questions on the tactics used by the EU leadership and others on their stated priority aims to save lives at sea.

“Delays in state-led rescues and diminishing NGO-led efforts on the Central Mediterranean route have been important factors leading to the loss of more lives,” says the IOM.

EU and search-and-rescues

For its part, the European Commission says it held three coordination group meetings last year on search and rescues.

The latest, held in October, discussed “terms of reference” for a European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) study.

A December political agreement on the EU’s asylum-wide reforms also includes references to search and rescues.

Although some of the final legal texts have yet to be published, reports are emerging that there will be no direct distribution of prospective asylum seekers after a rescue.

EU states like Italy that are under pressure could instead reportedly benefit from other forms of solidarity.

“We will also have a clear earmarking percentage of the solidarity pool that we will establish. This will mean a lot for many countries, and, specifically, I would like to mention Italy,” said Tomas Tobe, a Swedish centre-right MEP.

Tobe made the comments after the political agreement on 20 December.

He was also European Parliament lead on the regulation on asylum and migration management, which deals with the politically-charged issues of solidarity and responsibility.