Most European countries are making moves to criminalize the migration from Africa to Europe through the sea. Italy, for instance, has started frustrating rescue efforts by NGOs helping stranded people at sea. They are also making moves to prosecute those involved in rescuing stranded migrants and the migrants themselves.
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.