20. März 2018 · Kommentare deaktiviert für „NGOs warn of intimidation as Italy seizes migrant rescue ship“ · Kategorien: Italien, Libyen · Tags: , , ,

Al Jazeera | 20.03.2018

Vessel refused to hand refugees to Libyan coastguard and docked in Italy, where officials opened probe against crew.

by Ylenia Gostoli

Rome, Italy – Human rights groups have warned of a campaign of intimidation after Italian authorities seized a Spanish rescue ship and threatened criminal charges against some of its crew members who refused to hand over rescued refugees and migrants to the Libyan coastguard.

The NGO Proactiva Open Arms said its vessel responded to boats in distress in international waters off the coast of Libya on March 15.

The vessel took the 216 rescued refugees and migrants to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo port on March 17, where the ship was seized.

Complications in the operation began when the NGO attended to the second boat in distress.

Crew members said they were approached by a Libyan patrol boat demanding they transferred the migrants to them, claiming the Libyans used „death threats“ and intimidation.

The incident was caught on video by the Open Arms staff.

The NGO ship was then left sailing in the Mediterranean for more than 24 hours, as Italian authorities claimed they had not coordinated the rescue and were, therefore, not responsible.

Meanwhile, staff evacuated some of the victims, including a three-month-old and her mother in need of medical attention, to the nearest port, which at that point was Malta.

The ship was eventually allowed to dock in Pozzallo, after the Spanish government intervened in the negotiations.

Italian authorities in Catania then proceeded to confiscate the boat and open an investigation against three crew members – the captain, rescue coordinator and the NGO’s director.

They are accused of „aiding and abetting illegal migration“, and risk up to seven years in prison and hefty fines for the NGO.

„At that point, these people were in European territory, therefore, handing them over would have been a collective pushback,“ the captain, Marc Reig, said in a statement, adding handing over the refugees and migrants would have been against international law.

„Despite the immediate vicinity of the island of Malta, [Open Arms] proceeded to sail towards the Italian coast while waiting for instructions from the Spanish authorities,“ the Italian coastguard wrote in a statement.

Campaign of intimidation

NGOs that operate rescue missions in the Mediterranean fear Italy’s moves were aimed at intimidating rescuers.

„Taking someone back from international waters to a country against their will is a violation of human rights,“ Alex Steier, a spokesperson for the German organisation Mission Lifeline, told Al Jazeera. „That’s why it should not be allowed for any ship from the European Union to hand over [rescued people] to the Libyan coastguard,“ he explained.

„Due to the seizure of this rescue vessel, the European border regime has reached a new level. Not only are Libyan militias being supported with EU funds, but search and rescue NGOs are being confronted with defamation.

„Now, the criminalisation of solidarity is going so far as to expose organisations who are operating under international law. The only possibility to be rescued at sea is openly being suppressed by radical methods, and even more people will die in the Mediterranean,“ Steier said.

In July, Italy asked NGOs operating rescue missions in the Mediterranean to sign up to a code of conduct.

With EU support, Italy provided equipment and training to the Libyan coastguard to patrol the coast and intercept refugees and migrants before they are rescued by NGOs.

„Rules must be respected by all actors involved in search and rescue events, to guarantee that the lives of migrants are not put in further danger and that the sovereignty of the state is respected at all stages,“ European Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud told Al Jazeera.

„It is for national authorities to investigate any specific cases and we trust the Italian authorities are doing exactly this.“

But according to Human Rights Watch, the charges against the Open Arms NGO are „the latest in a series of measures to discredit NGO rescue groups“.

„It is shocking that Europe has reached the point of criminalising rescue at sea,“ said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. „Europeans should support, not smear, people saving lives in the Mediterranean, and remember that EU and Italian policies are propping up a cycle of detention and violence in Libya, while groups like Proactiva are saving lives.“

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AP | 19.03.2018

Spanish aid group fears migrant trafficking charges in Italy

ROME (AP) — The head of a Spanish aid group said Monday that he fears several staff members could be charged with human trafficking after they refused to hand over rescued migrants to the Libyan coast guard and took them to Italy instead.

Proactiva Open Arms founder Oscar Camps told reporters in Barcelona, Spain, where the group is based, that Italy impounded his organization’s rescue boat Sunday and he is worried the ship, Open Arms, might not be returned.

The case comes amid strong reluctance in Italy to take in any more of the migrants who human traffickers launch toward Europe in unseaworthy boats. International efforts to curtail the flow have focused on Mediterranean Sea crossings from Libya and other parts of North Africa.

Italian authorities say they are investigating the aid group for suspected criminal association and aiding illegal immigration.

Proactiva said the investigation stems from a tense high-seas standoff Thursday, when the Open Arms crew refused to relinquish the 218 people they had just picked up in international waters 70 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.

Camps said as Libyan coast guard members approached, some migrants panicked, began screaming and jumped into the sea. The Libyan coast guard was “very aggressive” toward the Open Arms crew, he said, adding that his organization had “a legal duty” to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean.

Mission chief Anabel Montes, speaking by videoconference from the impounded Open Arms vessel, said armed Libyan coast guard members made death threats to the aid workers.

“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,” Montes said.

She and the Open Arms’ captain are under investigation by Italian prosecutors. A third person, who hasn’t been identified, is also being investigated.

Italian authorities have not publicly explained why the Open Arms was impounded and its crew members were being investigated for on suspicion of aiding illegal immigration.

In an order to seize the rescue boat, Catania prosecutors alleged the crew ignored the Italian coast guard’s suggestion to request permission to dock in Malta, Italian news agency ANSA reported. The prosecutors said Proactiva and its aid workers seemed to have “the only purpose of reaching Italy,” ANSA said, quoting the order.

Law enforcement officials familiar with the case and speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it suggested that the probe was more complicated than that.

One possible legal issue was whether the humanitarian group was obliged to follow the Libyan coast guard vessel’s order if Libya had jurisdiction over rescues in that stretch of the sea.

The aid group spent three hours negotiating with the Libyans, Camps said. In the meantime, a vessel sent by Maltese authorities evacuated a critically ill 3-month-old baby and its mother.

Camps said the crew also contacted the Spanish and Italian navies, but received no assistance.

The Italian coast guard said it gave the Spanish boat permission to dock in Pozzallo on Friday, given the poor condition of the migrants and the worsening weather at sea.

Of the vessel’s 19 crew members, three are remaining in Italy to testify and the rest are heading back to Spain, Camps said.

Trying to stem the migration to its shores, Italy has supplied Libya with patrol boats and training. The European Union has backed the arrangement, but critics have said it enriches the unreliable Libyan coast guard and sends vulnerable migrants back into slave-like conditions in Libya.

Italy says it is working with U.N. authorities to ensure humane conditions in Libya for migrants. Many have reported being held as virtual prisoners, inadequate food, sexual assaults, beatings and other forms of torture while awaiting the chance to be smuggled out by boat.

In Brussels, EU Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told reporters: “We welcome the fact that the boat was able to be unloaded on Friday and that the migrants aboard received the treatment that they needed.”

“We are entirely aware that an Italian code of conduct exists aimed exactly at avoiding this kind of situation, and we call on all parties in the future to respect not just international law but also this Italian code of conduct,” she said.

Italy last year demanded that NGOs which operate rescue vessels sign on a code of conduct, but some humanitarian organizations declined to do so. Among their objections was a provision that would allow armed police on board rescue vessels.

A few others, including Proactiva Open Arms, did sign on and continued to operate migrant rescue missions at sea.

Some aid groups decided to suspend Mediterranean rescue missions because of what they described as an increase in hostility from the Italian-backed Libyan coast guard, including incidents in which the Libyans fired upon rescue boats.

The Italian government is coming under increasing public pressure at home to solve the migrant crisis, especially since EU partners have refused to take any significant number of migrants off Italy’s hands.

In Italy’s parliamentary election this month, the biggest voter-getters were political forces that railed against the government’s handling of the migrant crisis, including the populist 5-Star Movement, which campaigned by saying Italy should not remain “the refugee camp of Europe.”

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