Italy has impounded a Spanish rescue vessel that refused to surrender a group of migrants to the Libyan coast guard and instead brought them to Sicily, in what is believed to be the first case of its kind.
Italy has pursued an aggressive policy of encouraging Libya to block migrant boats and push them back to the Libyan coast, in a plan drawn up last year to tackle the huge numbers of desperate asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean.
More than 600,000 reached Italy in the last four years, with immigration featuring as a key issue in the March 4 general election.
The number of boats reaching Italy has dropped dramatically in the last few months, but the UN and humanitarian organisations say that migrants and refugees who are stuck in Libya endure horrific conditions and are subjected to rape, beatings and torture.
In a toughening of the strategy, the Italian authorities say the rescue ship, from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, contravened the deal by rescuing the group of 218 migrants rather than turning them over to a nearby Libyan coast guard vessel.
The rescue ship, called Open Arms, has been impounded in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo.
Last August a ship operated by a German NGO, Jugend Rettet, was impounded in the port of Trapani in Sicily on suspicion of colluding with Libyan smuggling gangs – charges that the group denies.
But this latest case is believed to be the first time that an NGO vessel has been impounded for having refused to surrender migrants to the Libyans.
The Italians are investigating Proactiva Open Arms for suspected criminal association and aiding illegal immigration.
The authorities in Rome said the Libyan coast guard had assumed responsibility for coordinating the rescue after the alarm was raised.
Proactiva Open Arms rescued the migrants from flimsy rubber dinghies in international waters, 73 miles north of Libya on Thursday.
It said the Libyan coast guard had threatened to shoot at its rescue dinghies unless they gave up the migrants.
The crew defied those threats and headed north to Sicily, arriving in Pozzallo on Saturday.
“(The Italians) accuse us of criminal association and fomenting illegal immigration by disobeying the Libyans by not delivering women and children to them,” Oscar Camps, the founder and head of Proactiva Open Arms, wrote on Twitter on Monday.
“Protecting human life at sea should be the absolute priority of any self-respecting civil or military agency, be that the Coastguard, Maritime Rescue or the Navy. That is what the Law of the Sea also stipulates.
“Impeding the saving of lives in danger on the high sea with the aim of returning them by force to an unsafe country – as Libya is – is equivalent to carrying out a pushback (and) contravenes the United Nations Statute on Refugees.”
At a press conference in Barcelona, Mr Camps said he is worried the Italians may not release Proactiva’s vessel.
“This is no joke,” he said.
He said that during the rescue last week, some migrants panicked and began screaming. They jumped from their boat into the sea.
The Libyan coast guard was “very aggressive” toward the Open Arms crew, Mr Camps said.
Anabel Montes, speaking by video conference from the Open Arms vessel in Italy, said it wasn’t the first time the crew had had problems with the Libyan coast guard, “but we had never reached such an extreme situation like this one in which they were threatening us, saying that they were going to kill us”.
The crew spent three hours negotiating with the Libyans.
The NGO, based just north of Barcelona, received an outpouring of support from human rights and migrant groups in Spain.
Helena Maleno, a prominent refugee activist who is currently being investigated in Morocco for sending alerts to the Spanish coastguard of rafts needing rescue, came to the group’s defence.
“Now nobody can deny it: in Europe there is a political process of criminalisation against those who defend human rights,” said Ms Maleno, who heads the Tangiers-based group Walking Borders and claims that Spanish police are behind her investigation in Morocco.
Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, also spoke out in defence of the NGO.
“Defending life cannot be a crime. I ask Italy to release the seized ship,” she wrote on Twitter.
Article Source : https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/19/italy-impounds-rescue-vessel-crew-refuses-hand-migrants-libya/