Democracy & Justice

Rescue Ship Seized by Italian Authorities After Saving 218 Migrants

A ship chartered by a Spanish aid group has been impounded in Italy and three of its crew have been criminally charged. But it seems that their real crime was saving human lives.

by Federica Brioschi

A ship chartered by the Spanish non-governmental organization (NGO) Proactiva Open Arms has been seized by Italian authorities. The vessel was impounded at Pozzallo, Sicily, on the morning of 18 March, after it had rescued 218 migrants from the Mediterranean.

Three people from Proactiva are now under criminal investigation by the Catania Public Prosecutor's Office. The founder of Proactiva, Oscar Camps, the commander of the ship, Marc Reig Creus, and the organization's mission head, Anabel Montes, stand accused of the crimes of criminal association and aiding illegal immigration.

'Give us the migrants'

The story of the Spanish ship had begun two days earlier, when the National Coordinating Center of the Italian Coast Guard sent out the distress call from an inflatable boat that had departed from Libya and was supposedly in international waters.

The Proactiva ship answered the call, but as volunteers were completing the rescue operations, a Libyan navy patrol boat managed to sail between them and the migrants, preventing the NGO from completing the rescue.

The Libyan crew then asked the crew to transfer over the women and children who had been rescued. At the same time, the National Coordinating Center of the Italian Coast Guard told the Proactiva crew to hand over control of the operations to the Libyans authorities.

When the activists refused, the Libyan ship threatened to open fire. Then captain of the Libyan vessel called the Proactiva crew to issue a direct threat: "Three minutes. I'll give you a three-minute ultimatum to come here. If you do not give us the migrants, I'll kill you."

This video, taken by the Proactiva volunteers, shows the tensest moments of the operation:

The activists called their bluff, and eventually the Libyan boat sailed away. The Proactiva ship began to sail north, waiting instructions on where it could dock. It made its first disembarkation at a port in Malta, for a mother and her newborn daughter, who was in critical condition.

The ship returned to sea to await further instructions on where it could offload the remaining migrants. After hours waiting and after a formal request from the Spanish government to its Italian counterpart, the ship received permission to dock in Pozzallo.

Failure to obey orders

The Proactiva crew "consciously violated the orders of the Italian authorities" when they did not surrender the migrants to the Libyans, explained the NGO's lawyer, Francesco Del Freo.

All search-and-rescue organizations have always tried to avoid the transfer of migrants to Libyan authorities. Otherwise, the migrants would be denied the opportunity to file an asylum application and would be held in detention centers in which the United Nations (the latest report was published by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya in February 2018) have found violations of human rights.

"The opinion of the UN can not however be considered at the same level as a normative source. Everything that happens has to abide by the laws and regulations ", arguex Del Freo.

Therefore, to refuse the transfer of migrants is an act of civil disobedience, which, although legitimate at the political level, must necessarily be prosecuted from the legal point of view. For NGOs, however, agreeing to hand over migrants to the Libyan Coast Guard would mean betraying their humanitarian mandate.

A crime of solidarity

"If the reasons of the seizure order are those that are already known to the public at this time, we are facing a crime of solidarity," said Patrizio Gonnella, the president of Liberties member the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights. "The accusation against the Spanish organization would in fact be that of saving human lives at sea without surrendering the migrants, including women and very small children, some of whom were in serious condition, to the Libyan Coast Guard. The violence and torture against migrants has been widely documented and recognized, even by the Court of Assizes of Milan in a rule from last October. The 22-year-old migrant who died of hunger shortly after the disembarkation at Pozzallo also came from Libya. In this case, the ship of Proactiva Open Arms had arrived too late to save this life."

Demonstrations of solidarity all around Europe

After the seizure, Proactiva launched the ashtag #freeopenarms, and on Saturday, 24 March, demonstrations of support were organized in many European cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante, Valencia, Tarragona, Palma, Ibiza, Gijón, Bilbao, Santiago, Salamanca, Avila, Roma, Pozzallo, Cagliari, Dublin.

The main message of the demonstrators is that saving lives is not a crime. The Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights and many other Italian civil society organizations stand with Proactiva for the liberation of its ship so that it can return to the Mediterranean to save lives.

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