Saturday

21st Apr 2018

Interview

Spanish NGO boat bosses face jail for rescuing Libya refugees

Gerard Canals, operation officer at the NGO Proactiva Open Arms, is not afraid of jail. Earlier this month, the NGO helped save more than 200 people from drowning in the central Mediterranean.

"I may go to prison but I am not really worried because we did nothing wrong," he told EUobserver on Tuesday (27 March) in Brussels.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Canals, along with the captain of the NGO rescue ship, as well as the head of the mission, face 15 year prison sentences and millions of euros in fines for their actions, according to the NGO.

The chief prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, has accused them of trafficking for having refused to hand people rescued over to the Libyans.

The Spanish boat had plucked the people, including children, some 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, well outside Libyan territorial waters, after receiving a rescue distress signal from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.

The NGO was then instructed to hand them over to the Libyan coast guard. But when the boat showed up, people refused to board the Libyan vessel.

Canals said the two sides had argued for some three hours before the Libyans instructed them to take the migrants back to Italy.

"So one way or another we did what we were supposed to do," said Canals.

It is the first time the NGO were told to hand over migrants to Libyans. The NGO was fearful of possible illegal push-backs to Libya given the rescue was well beyond Libyan territorial waters. The principle of 'non-refoulement' means refugees and migrants cannot be forced back to a place they are fleeing from.

Canals was not on the boat during the rescue operation and has yet to receive any formal charges from the Italian prosecutor. "It may never happen if they don't communicate to us in a couple of days," he said.

The NGO has, however, handed over all materials, images, and data to Italian authorities.

NGOs told to stay away

But the implications and broader message is clear - NGO rescue boats are not welcome in the central Mediterranean.

The boats appeared shortly after Italy had ended its Mare Nostrum naval search and rescue operation.

In 2016, there were 11 NGO vessels operating rescues. Last year it dropped to nine following Italian imposed code of conduct rules on NGOs. Today there is only one, run by Doctors without Borders (MSF).

The crackdown appears to have helped curb departure numbers from Libya itself. Some 71 percent of all departures this year left from Libya, down from 95 percent last year. More people are looking towards Tunisia, which now represents 20 percent of departures.

It is unclear why the Libyan coast guard was operating so far away from its territorial waters. Last year, the Italians hailed Libyan efforts to designate a search and rescue zone.

But the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN agency which overseas the zones, says it has yet to receive any notification from the Libyans.

"So far, Libya has not provided any information to our Global SAR plan database," an IMO spokesperson, said in an email on Tuesday.

Unanswered question

The issue is important. NGO Proactiva Open Arms president, Oscar Camps, remains perplexed on what the Libyan boat was doing so far out at sea.

"If they don't have a search and rescue area recognised and in operation, under which grounds is the Libyan coast operating at the distance of 73 miles away from the coast?" he said.

The EU has promised over €46m to help the Libyan coast guard in their rescue operations in "manner fully compliant with international human rights obligations."

It includes setting up basic operational rooms in Tripoli to coordinate rescues, train the Libyan guard, and supply them with rescue equipment, rubber boats, and communication.

It has launched a Spanish led surveillance network known as the Seahorse Seahorse Mediterranean Network.

The European Commission, had last week defended the Italian code of conduct pact. It had also said that the Libyans were working within their territorial waters.

"According to the Italian coast guard, they were working within their territorial waters and we have nothing to add at the moment," noted EU commission spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, on 19 March.

Evacuated women from Libya arrive newly-pregnant

Niger has temporarily stopped all evacuations from Libya detention centres under an EU funded programme because so few are being resettled to Europe. Many of those that have been evacuated are pregnant, with some asking for HIV testing.

EU complicit in Libyan torture, says Amnesty

The EU and its members states have signed up to 'Faustian pact' with Libyan authorities in the their effort to prevent migrant and refugee boat departures towards Italy, says Amnesty International.

EU mulls coercion to get refugee kids' fingerprints

EU policy and law makers are ironing out final details of a legislative reform on collecting the fingerprints of asylum seekers and refugees, known as Eurodac. The latest plan includes possibly using coercion against minors, which one MEP calls "violence".

Opinion

Calling time on European-Turkish strategic relations

With an Erdogan-Putin summit on Tuesday, joined by Iran on Wednesday, it is time for Europe to face facts - Turkey's ties with the West are no longer strategic. When Europe goes hither, Turkey deliberately goes thither.

EU mulls coercion to get refugee kids' fingerprints

EU policy and law makers are ironing out final details of a legislative reform on collecting the fingerprints of asylum seekers and refugees, known as Eurodac. The latest plan includes possibly using coercion against minors, which one MEP calls "violence".

News in Brief

  1. Audit office: Brexit 'divorce' bill could be billions higher
  2. MEPs urge better protection for journalists
  3. Dieselgate: MEPs back greater role for EU in car approvals
  4. European parliament adopts new organic farming rules
  5. EU granted protection to half million people in 2017
  6. Report: Facebook to carve 1.5bn users out of EU privacy law
  7. Greek court ruling permits migrants to travel to mainland
  8. Commonwealth summit hopes for trade boost after Brexit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  2. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  3. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  4. Martens CentreJoin Us at NET@WORK2018 Featuring Debates on Migration, Foreign Policy, Populism & Disinformation
  5. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  6. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  7. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight
  9. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMacedonians in Bulgaria Demand to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  10. Counter BalanceThe EIB Needs to Lead by Example on Tax Justice
  11. ILGA EuropeTrans People in Sweden to be Paid Compensation for Forced Sterilisation
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Danger of Standing Up for Justice and Rights in Central Asia

Latest News

  1. ECJ ruling set to end 10-year 'mouth tobacco' lobbying saga
  2. Whistleblowers, Syria and digital revolution This WEEK
  3. MEP friendship groups offer 'backdoor' for pariah regimes
  4. Macron and Merkel pledge euro reform
  5. Obscurity surrounds EU military fund's expert groups
  6. New EU party finance rules short circuit accountability
  7. Draghi to stay in secretive 'lobby' group
  8. Bulgaria offers lesson in tackling radical-right populists

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Must Work Together to Promote Global Steel Sector
  2. Swedish EnterprisesEU Tax Proposal on Digital Services Causes Concern for Small Exporting Economies
  3. Europea Jewish CongressCondemns the Horrific Murder of Holocaust Survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris
  4. Mission of China to the EUAn Open China Will Foster a World-Class Business Environment
  5. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  6. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  7. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  8. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  9. Martens CentreEuropean Defence Union: Time to Aim High?
  10. UNESDAWatch UNESDA’s President Toast Its 60th Anniversary Year
  11. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Condemns MEP Ana Gomes’s Anti-Semitic Remark, Calls for Disciplinary Action
  12. EPSUEU Commissioners Deny 9.8 Million Workers Legal Minimum Standards on Information Rights