Italy - Rescue at sea - Iuventa

Sea rescuers under attack: Iuventa crew criminalized by Italian government

Italy - Rescue at sea - Iuventa

Sea rescuers under attack: Iuventa crew criminalized by Italian government

The Iuventa mission set sail in 2016 to save lives at sea and in protest against Europe’s fortressed borders. Over the course of just one year the crew of volunteers rescued more than 14.000 refugees and migrants in distress in the Mediterranean sea, off the coast of Libya. Italian authorities, however, seized the ship in August 2017 and after lengthy investigations issued members of the crew with an indictment for aiding and abetting human smuggling.

In May 2022, pre-trial proceedings started against four members of the Iuventa crew in Sicily where a judge will decide whether they will have to stand trial. A further 17 individuals have been summoned who were working for the NGOs Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, as well as for an Italian shipping company which were all under investigation. They each face sentences of up to 20 years.

The accusations against SAR workers/activists are a severe attack on the work of sea rescuers who defend the lives and fundamental rights of refugees and migrants. In November 2019, ECCHR submitted a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, asking her to intervene in the situation in Italy.

In its complaint letter ECCHR argued that the criminal investigations against the Iuventa crew and the following smear campaign by Italian authorities violate the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. In October 2020, the UN special rapporteur publicly condemned Italy’s actions against the sea rescuers and demanded for the charges to be dropped.



After a criminal investigation by Italian authorities into ten crew members of the rescue ship Iuventa for "aiding and abetting illegal immigration", pre-trial proceedings were started against four of them in May 2022.

The ship, Iuventa, was the first SAR ship to be impounded by Italian police in August 2017 and it continues to languish in a Sicilian port. It was only then that crew members became aware of the extensive investigations into their rescue missions which had involved wiretapping, bugging devices and undercover agents.

The Italian police focused on the activities of the crew during three particular rescue operations which have since been reconstructed and analyzed by Forensic Architecture and Forensic Oceanography. 

Legal documents concerning the case were leaked to the Italian press, including the full names of crew members. This resulted in a heavy media smear campaign, surveillance by Italian authorities, as well as threats by far-right movements against those named in the documents.



Rescue at sea is not a crime under international law. Nevertheless, following an increasingly strict anti-immigration policy, European states such as Italy continue to criminalize people providing humanitarian aid at sea, thus preventing these urgent life-saving missions.

This is why ECCHR, in addition to the letter regarding the Iuventa case, also submitted a complaint letter to the UN Special Rapporteur in January 2020 regarding the criminalization of the NGO Sea-Watch and the defamation and smear campaign against one of its captains on board the Sea-Watch 3, Carola Rackete.

All charges against Carola Rackete have since been dropped by an Italian judge who held that Rackete had acted lawfully according to her duty to provide assistance to those in distress.

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UN Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the UN to work on a specific mandate.