Vessel refused to hand refugees to Libyan coastguard and docked in Italy, where officials opened probe against crew.
Activists decry 'the criminalisation of solidarity' related to pro-refugee activities.
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."
Additional links and comments:
(1) More on how the EU have been striking out against NGOs who help migrants (i.e. read 'criminalizing people who try to save lives').
-EU migration crisis: border agency accused of stirring controversy. Aid agencies hit back after Frontex claims they are colluding with people-traffickers in Mediterranean.
OP comment: The above reference is from last year. However even the Italian deputy foreign minister at the time, who spoke out in defense of the NGOs, is not really accurate in what he says about migrants: "We have a tendency to think they are leaving because of extreme poverty. This is not the case. The people who move are those who can afford to spend up to €7,000 [£6,000] – depending on where you come from – to make the journey,” he said. “The people who are coming are young, educated, and come from countries where development is taking off,” Giro said, pointing to Nigeria, Guinea and Ivory Coast."
The problem with the above statement is that while a country like Nigeria is NOT poor, it is *extremely* unequal: "Economic inequality in Nigeria has reached extreme levels, despite being the largest economy in Africa. The country has an expanding economy with abundant human capital and the economic potential to lift millions out of poverty." (From this source.) The same can be said of Ivory Coast (i.e. the source mentions that the World Bank estimated in 2013 that nearly half the population of this country lives in poverty, despite its prosperity), and about Guinea.
Also, there is not that much data available with regards to what is considered a criminal enterprise (i.e. migrant smuggling) but the stories of migrants can offer some rebuttal to this as well: "Some people the boat picks up have fled persecution. Hassan, a 14-year-old Somali picked up the previous day (see picture), is escaping civil war. It has taken him five months to get this far, three of them in Libya, sleeping in animal coops. Kaifa, a 20-year-old from Liberia, travelled through Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya; he says he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest in his home country. Many have suffered terribly en route. Aruna, a 21-year-old from Sierra Leone, has a broken hand from the smugglers’ beatings, and marks on his back from their whips. A Nigerian woman is keening: her two children were lost overboard before rescue arrived. But most are seeking a job of some kind, often to support families back home. Although they speak of escaping poverty, most will have had to scrape together large sums to pay for their journeys, often by getting relatives to chip in. Others will pay after arriving in Europe, perhaps by working as prostitutes, though they may not realise that that is what is in store for them. The journey has often been embarked on without much planning, and with little idea of what lies at its end."
...So at the very least it is premature to assume that most migrants are rich and coming to 'profit off the system' (or other racist assumption).
-Trafficking laws ‘target refugee aid workers in EU’. European Union warns that trafficking laws are being used to obstruct humanitarian work across the continent.
-Hungary announces new law targeting migrant aid groups. Prime Minister Orban's government will levy a tax on groups that receive foreign funding. The groups' foreign employees could also face expulsion. The move is part of Orban's so-called "Stop Soros Plan."
-Why Stopping NGOs Won't Solve The Migrant Crisis, Despite Defend Europe And Katie Hopkins'; Arguments. 'You don’t solve the migrant crisis at sea, you solve it on land.'
(2) To my mind, it's pretty obvious why there is a migration crisis in the first place. Examples of 'western' policies and actions contributing include the following. Also listed is an article about the most unequal countries in the world, as inequality is another factor.
-Invasion of Iraq: The original sin of the 21st century. 15 years on, Iraqi people and the world are still suffering the consequences of the US-led invasion.
-I posted about the war in Syria yesterday. (Syria could also be referred to as the place where everyone wants a piece of the pie.)
-Many migrants also come from Eritrea. (The post explains why so many leave that country.)
-"Drivers of migration include economic, demographic factors and environmental factors, and social and political dynamics. People may migrate to access better economic, employment and educational opportunities for themselves and their families. Some migrate due to lack of access to fundamental human rights such as health, food or basic education, and due to discrimination, poverty or separation from family. They may move in response to crisis – both natural and human-made – and, increasingly, in response to environmental change. How drivers interact in different dimensions (scale, location, distance and duration) affects how governments and the international community can respond in order to effectively protect migrants, govern migration and harness its benefits." (From this source.)
-Inequality index: where are the world's most unequal countries?
(3) A relatively old article but which does have data on migration to Europe by country of origin (for 2015).