Italy: 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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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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Following an incident in international waters 73 miles off the Libyan coast in which the Spanish NGO Proactive Open Arms rescued 218 people and refused to hand them over to the Libyan Coast Guard - which allegedly made death threats to the crew of the boat, the Open Arms - the rescue ship has been impounded in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily, as part of an investigation into potential "criminal cospiracy to promote illegal immigration".

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 captain of Open Arms, Marc Reig, reiterates that he always acted in line with the applicable international codes and legislation, created to guarantee and safeguard human lives at sea and the rights of rescued shipwrecked people. At the same time he maintains that at all times he followed the instructions of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).

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.

Libyan Coast Guard v NGO: Italy and the EU have chosen their allies
Originally published in French
on 20 March 2018 by Migreurop, EuroMed Rights and FIDH. Unofficial translation by Statewatch.
Since the end of 2016, Italy - supported by the EU - has initiated a dual strategy to put an end to migrant arrivals from the central Mediterranean: to criminalize the rescue of citizens; and to make Libya, once again, Europe's policeman. These two dimensions became more pronounced during the summer of 2017 with the imposition of a "code of conduct" on NGOs and the sequestration of vessels from recalcitrant organizations [who did not sign up to the code]. At the same time, Italian military ships were deployed in the territorial waters of Libya, which unilaterally declared its Search and Rescue Area (SAR) prohibited to unauthorized foreign vessels, particularly those of NGOs.

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, [1] 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", [2] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Esclavage en Libye : Macron dénonce des «crimes contre l’humanité», Le Monde, 22 November 2017

Italy: Targeting of NGO rescue ship displays “reckless disregard for common decency”
Originally published
on 19 March 2018 by Amnesty International.
Following yesterday’s seizure of a Spanish NGO rescue boat by the Italian authorities and the investigation of its crew for "criminal conspiracy aimed at facilitating illegal immigration” after they refused to hand over to the Libyan Coast Guard refugees and migrants rescued in international waters over 70 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, Amnesty International’s Campaigns Director for Europe, Fotis Filippou said:

“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 Friday’s 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.

Italy: Migrant Rescue Ship Impounded - Don't Criminalize Saving Lives
Originally published
on 19 March 2018 by Human Rights Watch.
(Milan) – Italy has impounded a rescue ship and threatened criminal charges against two members of its crew and the coordinator of the organization after they refused to turn migrants over to Libyan forces, fearing that they would be abused.

On March 18, 2018, an Italian prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, impounded the Spanish rescue group Proactiva’s ship Open Arms and is considering levelling charges of criminal association for the purposes of facilitating irregular migration after Proactiva refused to transfer people rescued in international waters to a Libyan patrol boat. Everyone intercepted by Libyan forces or handed over to them is taken to Libya and placed in detention.

“Proactiva acted to save migrants’ lives and then prevented them from being abused in indefinite detention,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is perverse to try to characterize as criminal a refusal to hand victims to Libyan coast guard forces knowing they could face possible torture and rape in Libyan detention centers.”

International human rights and refugee law prohibits returning anyone to a place where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment – the nonrefoulement principle. Empowering Libyan forces to capture people on the high seas, when it is known that they will return them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in arbitrary detention exposes Italy and other European Union (EU) states involved to charges of aiding and abetting in serious human rights violations in detention, Human Rights Watch said.

Italy’s strategy to reduce boat arrivals is in line with the EU’s approach to migration cooperation with Libya. The EU is supporting training and technical assistance to Libyan coast guard forces nominally under the United Nations (UN) and EU-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, and wants to expand those efforts. Despite EU insistence, the International Maritime Organization has not yet recognized a Libyan search-and-rescue zone, and Libya does not yet have a fully functioning maritime rescue coordination center.

Italy has delivered four patrol boats to Libyan coast guard forces. The Libyan forces included patrol boat 648, which was involved in this incident as well as a deadly intervention in November 2017 that cost the lives of at least 50 people, according to the German nongovernmental group Sea-Watch.

Based on a detailed incident report provided by Proactiva, the Open Arms responded on March 15 to an overcrowded rubber dinghy in international waters, 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) informed the Open Arms after it reached the rubber boat that Libyan forces had command over the operation, but told the Open Arms crew to use their judgment. For the security of the people on board the rubber dinghy, Proactiva decided to provide everyone with life jackets and to transfer all the women and children to Proactiva’s rigid-hulled inflatable boats and stayed nearby.

Libyan coast guard patrol boat 648 reached the scene approximately 30 minutes later. Anabel Montes, the search-and-rescue coordinator on board Open Arms, told Human Rights Watch that coast guard officers threatened via megaphone and radio, in English, to kill the crew on the Proactiva boat holding women and children if it did not turn them over. Eleven men jumped out of the rubber boat into the water and were also taken on board by the Proactiva boats. At one point, the Libyan patrol boat and its own rubber dinghy sandwiched one of the Proactiva boats, and an unarmed Libyan officer boarded to convince people to transfer to the patrol boat. He desisted in the face of everyone’s refusal to cooperate.

After a three-hour stand-off, the Proactiva crew were able to safely transfer all women, children, and men to the Open Arms ship and proceed north. For more than 24 hours, the crew was unsure where they would be able to disembark the rescued people. The Italian Maritime rescue coordination center told them Italy had not coordinated the rescue and was therefore not responsible.

The national coordination center in Madrid, Spain, the ship’s flag state, told them they couldn’t help because Proactiva had performed a rescue in “Libya’s SAR zone.” Malta agreed to evacuate an infant and her mother for medical reasons. The Spanish government interceded on Proactiva’s behalf, and Italy eventually allowed disembarkation in Pozzallo, Sicily, on the morning of March 17.

The prospect of charges against Proactiva is the latest in a series of measures to discredit nongovernmental rescue groups, Human Rights Watch said. Anti-immigrant groups and some media carried out a concerted smear campaign in 2017. Carmelo Zuccaro, the Sicilian prosecutor who opened the investigation against Proactiva, made the news last year with broad accusations of complicity between rescue groups and smuggling networks, even though Zuccaro later confirmed to a parliamentary inquiry he had no evidence of any wrongdoing.

Another Sicilian prosecutor sequestered the Iuventus, a ship operated by the German group Jugend Rettet in August and is still pursuing an investigation into alleged facilitation of irregular migration. The Italian government imposed a code of conduct in July on rescue groups that serves a dual purpose of implying they need management and of restricting their ability to operate effectively.

“It is shocking that Europe has reached the point of criminalizing rescue at sea,” Sunderland said. “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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