Saturday

25th May 2019

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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.

EU anti-slavery mission in Libya at risk, UN says

Karmen Sakhr, who oversees the North Africa unit at the UN refugee agency, told MEPs that Niger may stop accepting people from Libya if EU states don't take in more refugees.

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.

Exclusive

Basque region offers to host rescued Aquarius migrants

The Basque government have offered to host some of the refugees rescued by the Aquarius humanitarian ship that will dock in Valencia. "That is the commitment of the Basque country," said it leader Inigo Ukrullu.

Opinion

The Aquarius migrant boat - and the EU policy failings

The precarious situation the Aquarius and its passengers found themselves is a consequence of EU member states' failure to manage migration in a strategic and coordinated manner, where member states beyond those receiving new arrivals are part of the solution.

News in Brief

  1. UK's May announces June 7 resignation date
  2. Ireland votes for EU election and divorce referendum
  3. Report: May to announce resignation plan on Friday
  4. Leading politicians: time for EU to have female leaders
  5. Poll: Finland's Green party to surge in EU elections
  6. High demand for postal voting in Denmark
  7. Some EU citizens turned away at UK polling stations
  8. Switzerland unlikely to sign draft EU deal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Latest News

  1. Belgium votes in hybrid EU-national election
  2. Irish greens take Dublin in second EU exit poll
  3. EU election results to trigger top jobs scramble This WEEK
  4. Don't tell the Dutch - but Timmermans 'won'
  5. EU says goodbye to May with 'respect'
  6. Strache scandal: how big a hit will Austrian far-right take?
  7. Italy train row exposes competing views of EU
  8. Dutch socialists on top in first EP election exit poll

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us