Sunday

25th Aug 2019

Feature

EU asked to solve migrant rescue deadlock

  • More than 500 rescued people now waiting on board the two charity vessels (Photo: CSDP EEAS)

France has initiated informal talks with the European Commission to find a solution for the 'Open Arms', a Spanish rescue ship which has been stuck in the Mediterranean Sea for 13 days with 151 people on board, after being denied entry by Italy and Malta.

The Spanish authorities' attitude also remains unclear.

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"Just like every other time this kind of situation has come up, France is taking the initiative and actively contributing to the search for a solution at European scale to disembark and take in the rescued individuals," said a spokesperson for the French interior ministry to Spanish newspaper EL Pais.

A spokesperson for the European Commission insisted on Monday that the official coordination of the disembarkation and relocation operations of the Open Arms have not started only because there has been no request for one by member states.

The spokesperson also said that the commission has contacted European countries to "ask them to show solidarity" because "a solution must be found for all on board" the vessel.

EU sources confirmed that the commission is having informal talks with several member states "to explore the options of a voluntary relocation process." The names of these countries are still unknown.

Open Arms initially requested Italy and Malta to disembark all the rescued migrants, but its appeal was rejected.

Malta has offered safe harbour only the last 39 people rescued by the Spanish ship last Saturday.

Bt the Open Arms crew decided not to transfer them in order to avoid a revolt aboard from those who would be forced to remain.

On 7 August, the Spanish organisation Proactiva Open Arms, which operates the ship, sent a letter to French, German and Spanish leaders Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Pedro Sanchez asking them to activate a procedure known as a "formal coordination petition" to distribute the migrants across member states.

But none of the three member states contacted by the non-profit organisation followed up with a formal demand.

Matteo Salvini, the Italian minister of the interior, asked Spanish authorities to take in the migrants since Proactiva Open Arms was a Spanish organization. However, the acting government of Sanchez has currently rejected this option.

Spain's acting deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, suggested last Thursday that Spain would not take part.

"We are not a country nor a government that can be questioned in these issues and we are not the closest nor most secure port in this situation," she told reporters.

According to the Spanish press, Spanish government sources have suggested that the Socialist party's executive wing was also involved in the effort to find a "common European solution" for the vessel.

This Monday, the captain of 'Open Arms' ship asked Spain to grant asylum to 31 minors trapped on board.

As a response, Spain's acting development minister, Jose Luis Abalos, said that the captain of the Open Arms humanitarian boat "has no legal capacity" to make such a request.

"The captain of the ship does not have that capacity or that power, it does not correspond to him to be able to exercise that function, I understand that to continue keeping the matter alive it can be an argument, but he does not have that legal capacity," said Abalos in an interview with the Spanish press.

Meanwhile, conditions on board continue to deteriorate. Several people have been evacuated for medical reasons, including two nine-month-old babies and their relatives.

The mayor of Cadiz, Jose Maria Gonzalez, has sent a public letter to Sanchez in which he offered the city port for the Open Arms vessel "because we cannot remain indifferent to this situation".

Additionally, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking vessel, operated by international charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee, rescued 81 people on Sunday (11 August) and another 105 on Monday (12 August 12).

This added up to a total of 356 people on board, including 74 minors, now seeking care.

This also means more than 500 rescued migrants on two NGO ships now remain stranded due to the political mess in Europe.

Salvini has insisted on an "absolute prohibition" of port entry by either the 'Ocean Viking' or the 'Open Arms'. Maltese authorities have also refused to take in these migrants.

"I am at work in the ministry this morning to prevent more than 500 migrants from disembarking from two NGO boats, one French and one Spanish," Salvini wrote on Facebook this Tuesday.

"I will let you know how this ends. I will not give up," he added.

But for his part, Oscar Camps, the founder of Proactiva Open Arms, has challenged Spanish authorities to take Italy and Malta before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg.

The Open Arms vessel was blocked from operating in the Mediterranean Sea earlier this year after Spanish authorities said it had violated international agreements.

Author bio

Elena Sánchez Nicolás is a Spanish freelance journalist based in Belgium.

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Open Arms may face fine in Spain 

Open Arms may face a fine of up to €901,000 for doing "search and rescue" without authorisation, but rescuing people who are shipwrecked is a legal duty, the NGO says.

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