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BRUSSELS — The United Nations refugee agency expressed concern Tuesday that a new Italian law authorizing fines against the owners of private rescue ships could endanger the lives of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

A so-called security decree drafted by Italy’s right-wing interior minister and given final parliamentary approval Monday raised the maximum fine for entering Italian waters without permission to $1.1 million from a previous $56,000.

The law also allows for the arrest of captains who ignore orders to stay out of Italian ports and the immediate seizure of their boats by Italian naval authorities.

The U.N. agency said nongovernmental organizations operating rescue ships play “an invaluable role” in saving lives and “the commitment and humanity that motivates their activities should not be criminalized or stigmatized.”

Italy’s law “could deter or impede sea rescue activities by private vessels at a time when European states have largely withdrawn from rescue efforts” in the Mediterranean, the U.N. agency said.

After the Italian Senate voted 160-57 with 21 abstentions in favor of his decree, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called the move “a step forward toward a more secure Italy,” according to Italian news agency ANSA.

The European Union’s executive commission said it was analyzing the legislation to see if it is compatible with EU laws.

Since taking office last year in a populist coalition government, Salvini has made keeping migrants from reaching Italy and pressuring other European countries to take responsibility for new arrivals a top priority. He banned ships on humanitarian rescue missions from bringing migrants into the country’s ports, arguing that their presence in the Mediterranean encouraged smugglers to launch unseaworthy boats from northern Africa.

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration says 39,289 migrants and refugees made it to Europe by sea this year as of Sunday, about 34% fewer than during the same period in 2018.

Print Headline: United Nations says new Italian law fining ships could endanger migrants

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