21 March 2018
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Italian investigation into people trafficking by Proactive Open Arms: statements from the Open Arms' captain; Amnesty; Migreurop; and Human Rights Watch
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On Monday Proactive Open Arms "accused Italian authorities of putting humanitarian operations in the Mediterranean at risk" through the investigation. The organisation's director, Oscar Camps, said at a press conference in Barcelona:
"Today it seems that solidarity has become a crime... What is being done is the blocking of intervention of humanitarian organizations at sea. There are fewer and fewer NGOs doing this work and the objective is that there are none any left [sic]."
See: Spanish aid group slams Italy for seizing migrant rescue boat (The Local, link)
Proactive Open Arms have issued a statement by Marc Reig, the captain of the boat, offering his version of events at sea. Statements denouncing the actions of the Italian authorities have also come from Amnesty International; Migreurop, EuroMed Rights and FIDH; and Human Rights Watch. These are reproduced below:
On the issue of criminalisation of solidarity across Europe, see the Institute of Race Relation's November 2017 report: Humanitarianism: the unacceptable face of solidarity(link)
Official communication by the captain of the Open Arms
Originally published in Spanish on 20 March 2018. Unofficial translation by Statewatch.
The lifesaving operations began after receiving an INMARSAT message, a general call to all vessels; and a subsequent call from the Rome MRCC (ITMRCC), that took on the coordination of the event. Subsequently we received a second communication informing us that the management of the rescue would pass to the "Libyan Coast Guard". In that moment no Libyan vessel was in sight. We found a rubber boat in a situation of extreme danger: it was filling with water and some people had fallen in the sea. We intervened to save the lives of shipwrecked. After communicating with the ITMRCC, we proceeded to bring them aboard the Open Arms.
After, with the shipwrecked people on board, we had to manage a second rescue operation, at all times in coordination with the ITMRCC. During the operation a Libyan patrol boat reached us and intimidated us, with death threats, ordering us to hand over the women and children that were on board the rescue boats. These people were on European territory and hence handing them over would have been a collective 'hot return' to a state that is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention.
We had vulnerable people on board and we requested a medical evacuation at the closest port, in this case Malta, that authorised us to transfer a 3-month-old child in danger, along with its mother. Having received no other instruction from Malta, we were awaiting further instructions for almost three more hours, almost outside Maltese territorial waters, when the ITMRCC informed us that we could head towards Pozzallo, designated as a port of safety.
Since arriving at the port of Pozzallo we have cooperated with the Italian authorities. We responded voluntarily to all their questions on Saturday and we have provided them with all the images, documentation and logs of the boat. The captain has full confidence in the Italian justice system.
Over the past few days, this dual strategy has taken a new step. On 15 March, 2018 the Spanish rescue NGO Proactiva Open Arms conducted several rescue operations in international waters off the coast of Libya. The NGO was then contacted by the coastguards of Tripoli, who ordered the transfer of the rescued migrants onto one of their ships. Aware of the deprivation of liberty and the abuse of the boat people who have been returned to Libya, the crew refused to deliver them. After several hours of high tension during which the Libyan coastguard, weapons in hand, threatened the crew of the Proactiva Open Arms, they finally withdrew.
The Spanish NGO then headed to Italy to urgently disembark the 216 people rescued and was ordered to disembark them at Pozzallo (Italy), for them to be taken to the hotspot. On 19 March, the prosecutor of Catania ordered the immobilisation of the boat in the port and seized it. Following the NGO's refusal to hand over the rescued persons to the Libyan coastguard, an investigation has been opened and three members of the crew are allegedly being prosecuted for "criminal association to facilitate illegal immigration."
If the rescue NGOs at sea are so troublesome, it is because they are the last lock preventing the Libyan Coast Guard from intercepting migrants with impunity, and allowing them to testify to the fate those who escape the hell of Libya. By financing,  equipping, and coordinating the activities of the Libyan Coast Guard to return the intercepted individuals to abuses that some European leaders have themselves, filled with hypocrisy, described as "crimes against humanity",  they become accomplices.
It is to try to stop this policy that Migreurop, EuroMed Rights and FIDH defend respect for international law (including the right of asylum) freedom of movement for all (including the right to leave any country, including including one's - Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and supports those accused of crimes of solidarity.
 In 2017, 162 million euros were allocated to the Libyan authorities under the Trust Fund, mainly from the European Development Fund and the Italian Defense Budget, and more than 5,000 people lost their lives on the Mediterranean route for lack of access to European territory.
 Esclavage en Libye : Macron dénonce des «crimes contre lhumanité», Le Monde, 22 November 2017
By requesting the Libyan coastguard to coordinate rescue and then impounding the NGO ship that refused to hand over the refugees and migrants, the Italian authorities have shown a reckless disregard for common decency. Rather than being criminalized for trying to save refugees and migrants who have fled horrific detention conditions and systematic human rights abuses in Libya, NGOs saving lives at sea should be supported.
The Italian authorities are once more revealing where their true priorities lie: namely shutting off the central Mediterranean route, with scant regard to the suffering caused. This appears to mark yet another step towards the outsourcing to the Libyan Coast Guard of the patrolling of the central Mediterranean.
It is time for European governments to urgently reset their cooperation with Libya on migration. Their callous complicity with smugglers, criminals and torturers must end and the safety and the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants must be prioritized.
The rescue vessel Open Arms was seized on Sunday in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo and the Italian authorities stated they are investigating the group for suspected criminal association aimed at aiding and abetting illegal immigration.
Marking a significant departure from previous rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, usually coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard, Italian authorities have stated that Fridays rescue operations in international waters were conducted under the coordination of the Libyan Coast Guard, who have received in past months speedboats, training and further assistance from various European governments and institutions. Refugees and migrants intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are disembarked in Libya and immediately transferred to detention centres where serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and exploitation have been widely documented.
European Governments should condition their support on ensuring that Libyan authorities bring an end to the policy of indefinite arbitrary detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, recognize UNHCR and allow it to exercise its full mandate in the country. European governments must also provide sufficient resettlement opportunities for the refugees stranded in Libya, establish a solid monitoring of the operations of the Libyan Coast Guard and most importantly ensure people rescued at sea are not taken back to Libya until the protection of their rights can be guaranteed.
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