ALBA Human Rights Winners Under Assault from Italian Government

March 21, 2018
Òscar Camps, founder of Proactiva Open Arms

Òscar Camps, founder of Proactiva Open Arms

The London Times reports:

Crew members of a Spanish charity ship that rescued 218 migrants from the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy are being investigated for aiding illegal immigration, signalling Rome’s increasing intolerance of migrants.

Italian authorities impounded the ship operated by Proactiva Open Arms after it landed in Pozzallo, Sicily. The public prosecutor in Catania argued that it “violated the law and international agreements by not handing over the migrants to Libyan authorities”.

The move angered the city of Barcelona, which donated €100,000 to the charity last month. “Defending life cannot be a crime. Italy must free the hijacked ship,” said Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona.

The dispute started last Thursday when the Italian coastguard requested help after receiving an SOS from migrant vessels in international waters off the coast of Libya. The Italians said the Libyan coastguard had accepted the task, but the Spanish vessel went into action anyway. 

A spokeswoman for Proactiva questioned the coastguard’s account and said that when the Libyans arrived they threatened to shoot at the Spanish rescue dinghies, which were laden with African women and children. Laura Lanuza said: “When we arrived on the scene we were told the Libyans were in charge but they weren’t there, so we told the Italians we could start the rescue. They said, ‘It’s up to you’.

“When the Libyans arrived they threatened to kill us unless we handed over the migrants but left after a two-and-a-half-hour stand off. This is the first time we see the Italians give a rescue job to the Libyans in international waters when there is a charity in the area. It’s illegal, but we know there is a political context in Italy.”

A sharp drop in sailings last year was linked to an alleged deal struck by Italy’s centre-left government with Libyan trafficking gangs as anti-migrant sentiment grew in Italy. Following the elections on March 4, the anti-migrant League party, led by Matteo Salvini, who has promised to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants from Italy, is a candidate to form the next government.

Italy and the EU have also invested heavily in training Libyan coastguard crews to intercept migrants and return them to Libya. More than 600,000 have sailed from the north African country in the past four years.

About 4,400 migrants have been rescued and taken to Italy this year, down 72 per cent year-on-year, while the Libyan coastguard has intercepted 2,421. “The Italians are trying to hand over all rescues to the Libyans,” an aid official who declined to be named said.

Aid groups have protested that migrants cannot legally be sent back to Libya because they are fleeing from torture, rape and extortion in the country. Last week a 22-year-old Eritrean who was saved at sea after being detained for 18 months in Libya died of malnutrition just after landing in Sicily.

“We should not forget that it is not only the human rights of people who flee in search of refuge that are at stake. It is the rights of all citizens of the European Union who are being violated,” Oscar Camps, founder of Proactiva, said.

Proactive Open Arms is the winner of the 2017 ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism. To sign a petition requesting their release, click here.