On March 18th a Proactiva Open Arms’ search-and-rescue ship was sequestered by the Procura di Catania at Pozzallo (Ragusa, Italy). The Spanish NGO’s vessel had just saved 218 migrants in the southern Mediterranean and is now still under sequester, accused of criminal association for the purposes of facilitating irregular migration.
This is only one of the many attacks NGOs have been enduring lately, a situation that Social Change School’s President Marco Crescenzi has addressed in his last article on the HuffPost Italia Blog: “Why are NGOs and social sector constantly under attack?”.
We asked Albert Mayordomo, HOPE – Master in Humanitarian Operations in Emergencies student and former Head of Mission at Proactiva Open Arms, his opinion on what is happening with Open Arms’ ship in Italy, and he gladly commented on the topic.
“On March 15th, the MV Open Arms – owned and operated by NGO Proactiva Open Arms – was intercepted and received death threats by Libyan “coastguard” patrol boat 648, a boat that was a present from the Italian Government.
In the middle of a rescue operation at 73 nautical miles in International waters, Open Arms’ rescue teams were asked to hand the migrants over to the Libyans. Their literal words were “if you do not hand the migrants over to us, we will kill you”. The Open Arms’ Head of Mission refused to follow that order and threats.
The distress call and the activation of SAR (Search & Rescue) operation was coordinated by the itMRCC (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center) based in Rome. The distress call was sent by the itMRCC via Inmarsat (satellite signal) to all ships in the area with disregards of their nature (SAR ships, tankers, commercial, etc…). We followed to that distress call according to International Maritime Law, SOLAS convention and SAR convention.
After the Libyan patrol boat 648 chased the Open Arms for a few hours, the Libyans stopped the chasing and the Open Arms was able to finish the rescue operation with a final count of 218 souls on board. 218 people who might have ended up in a Libyan prison where women are gang-raped, men are raped, tortured and extorted. Reports and graphic documentation of what really happens inside Libyan prisons are out there, it is not a secret anymore.
I should remark that Libyan patrol boat 648 is responsible for many incidents with SAR ships. Last year, this very same patrol boat was responsible for the death of 50 migrants who drowned at sea, trying to intercept and stop a rescue operation of another SAR ship, and that was also recorded on tape. Patrol boat 648 has also been responsible for firing over SAR ships in the past.
Let’s not forget that MV Open Arms was held hostage at sea for a few hours by Libyan “coastguards” last year.
On March 18th, Italian government granted MV Open Arms permission to disembark the 218 migrants at Pozzallo port. Right after the disembarkation, MV Open Arms Captain was informed that the ship had been impounded by authorities following orders from prosecutor’s office of Catania. MV Open Arms crew has been charged with criminal association for purposes of facilitating irregular migration.
Proactiva Open Arms believes that NGOs rescuing migrants in the sea are being victims of an orchestrated criminalization campaign to defame their activities since 2016.
Our mandate is short and simple: to prevent loss of life at sea without distinction as to race, sex and religion. We follow the International Maritime Law, SOLAS convention, International Humanitarian Law and Refugee Law as stated in the Geneva Conventions. We always operate on the legal side of law and we will keep doing so, however, we will not be intimidated by thugs.
Let’s not forget that every night the MV Open Arms spends in a Sicilian port, precious lives are being lost at sea.
We are disturbing and uncomfortable witnesses for EU and Italian governments, and they are trying to stop us from telling the truth happening out there. We will not step back, not 1 inch, in defending the human rights at sea.”
Former Head of Mission
Proactiva Open Arms
Image source: SOS Méditerranée