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ProActiva Open Arms, putting lives before politics

The Catalan NGO continues to rescue migrants stranded in the Mediterranean despite opposition from the authorities



02 August 2019 12:52 PM


ACN | Barcelona

On August 1, the ProActiva Open Arms NGO rescued 52 migrants stranded on a boat in the Mediterranean that was taking in water and on the point of sinking.

"We arrived on time. 52 people, 16 women and 2 babies adrift. They are safe and sound. Now we need safe harbor." tweeted the NGO's founder, Òscar Camps.

The incident encapsulates the Catalan NGO's situation: the euphoria of saving lives at risk, and the difficulties in finding somewhere in Europe that will take the migrants.

ProActiva Open Arms' mission of rescuing migrants and refugees is far from straightforward, and with the scale of the crisis, the authorities have not made things easy for the NGO.

At the beginning of July, for example, the Spanish authorities threatened the NGO with fines of up to 900,000 euros for defying orders confining its migrant rescue ship to port.

A few days earlier, Open Arms defied the ban and set sail from Naples, with Camps tweeting: "We’re pulling up anchor and leaving. I'd rather be in prison than complicit.”

Over 100 days in Barcelona port

Open Arms has been in the headlines regularly in 2019, after the Spanish maritime authorities refused the ship permission to leave Barcelona's port for over 100 days.

The ship was eventually authorized to carry humanitarian aid to the eastern Mediterranean at the end of April, but the ban on taking part in migrant rescue operations was not lifted.

  •  "We’re pulling up anchor and leaving. I'd rather be in prison than complicit"

    Oscar Camps · Open Arms head

That saw Open Arms sail to Naples as part of a migrant rescue awareness campaign that claimed that “not all of Italy is Salvini,” referring to the country’s anti-migrant interior minister.

In June 2018, Salvini refused safe harbor to a rescue ship with around 600 people on board, and announced that Italy would no longer accept migrant rescue ships.

Parliament's Gold Medal for Camps

Yet, the NGO's work has also been recognized, most recently by the Catalan parliament, which awarded its Gold Medal to Camps, along with German skipper, Carola Rackete.

Rackete's Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship was detained by Italian authorities in June for forcing its way into Lampedusa's port with migrants on board. Rackete is now facing a prison sentence.

Later that month, ProActiva Open Arms mounted a protest on the River Rhine in Strasbourg in support of Rackete and calling for "an end to the criminalization" of migrant rescue NGOs.

In fact, ProActiva Open Arms has had its own run-in with the Italian authorities, which last year accused three of its members of “fostering illegal immigration.”

Yet, with 597 deaths in the Mediterranean between January 1 and June 28, the NGO remains defiant and determined to continue its work despite the opposition of the authorities.

In July, Open Arms member, Ricardo Gatti, was critical of the authorities' approach to the crisis: "It's a conflict that scares them because they don't know how to deal with it," he said.


  • A Proactiva Open Arms boat (by Reuters/Juan Medina)

  • A Proactiva Open Arms boat (by Reuters/Juan Medina)