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Italy blocks Proactiva Open Arms refugee rescue ship

Prosecutor in Sicily accuses Catalan-run NGO of fostering illegal immigration

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19 March 2018 02:53 PM

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ACN | Barcelona

The refugee rescue ship of Proactiva Open Arms, a Catalan NGO, has been blocked in Italy following accusations of “fostering illegal immigration” and “criminal association” for allegedly ignoring orders from Libyan coastguards, according to founder Oscar Camps. A prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, ordered the arrest of the boat on Sunday.

“It almost seems as if solidarity was a crime,” said Camps at a press conference on Monday. According to him, Proactiva Open Arms and other NGOs are being “harassed” by Italian and Libyan authorities in order to prevent them from rescuing refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

  • “It almost seems as if solidarity was a crime”

    Oscar Camps · Proactiva Open Arms founder

On Thursday, the Open Arms’ ship received the location of a refugee boat from Italian coastguards, who warned them that “there were people in danger.” They rescued some 200 people, some of whom were “in a severe medical condition”. When Libyan coastguards arrived, Italian authorities ordered the Catalan ship to follow their orders. But refugees did not want to return to Libya, and some even jumped back onto the water. Tension rose, and Libyan coastguards even threatened them with “shooting to kill,” according to Camps.

The last time that Libyan coastguards intervened in a rescue operation by Open Arms, more than 50 people died, said Camps. “And even if they don’t die, they bring them back to Libya, a place where rights are not respected,” he said.

The Libyan boat eventually left after three hours. Yet, as no port authorized Open Arms’ ship to dock, they continued sailing with no direction for more than two days. They were finally allowed to berth in Pozzallo, south of Sicily, and a Maltese ship took all the rescued refugees in.

Three NGO and crew members were sent to a local police station for some hours on Sunday, and they currently face criminal charges carrying prison sentences of between 4 and 7 years.

A spokesperson for the European Commission, Natasha Bertaud, said on Monday that they were “closely” following the latest developments, and stressed their trust for Italian authorities to “continue managing the situation” according to their responsibilities. Bertaud urged “all parts” to respect international law.

When asked about the death threats that Proactiva Open Arms allegedly received from Libyan coastguards, Bertaud said that they had “nothing to add.”

Proactiva Open Arms has rescued some 58,000 people in the Mediterranean in nearly two years, according to the NGO. In 2015, they received the European Citizen’s Prize, given by members of the European Parliament.

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