Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has accused European non-governmental organizations of coordinating with people-smuggling mafias to pick up migrants off the coast of Libya and transport them to Italian ports. Italian officials have referred to the charity rescue boats as "Mediterranean taxis" for people-smugglers. (Photo by Andreas Gebert/Getty Images)
Italian authorities have seized a Spanish migrant rescue ship after a three-week standoff between the Italian government and the Spanish charity operating the vessel.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had refused to allow the Open Arms rescue ship, carrying more than 80 mostly African migrants, to dock in Italy. The refusal was in line with his crackdown on migrant smuggling that has effectively closed Italian ports to migrant rescue boats since June 2018.
Salvini has accused European non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of coordinating with people-smuggling mafias to pick up migrants off the coast of Libya and transport them to Italian ports. Italian officials have referred to the charity rescue boats as "Mediterranean taxis" for people-smugglers.
Sicilian prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio on August 20 ordered the Open Arms, anchored one kilometer off Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa, to dock in Sicily so that its passengers could disembark. He made the decision, in opposition to Salvini, after more than a dozen migrants jumped overboard and tried to swim to shore. Subsequent video footage showed that Open Arms staged the jumps to manipulate public opinion.
The Open Arms, operated by a Spanish NGO of the same name, had picked up 147 migrants off the coast of Libya on August 1. The Italian government allowed those in need of medical attention and all unaccompanied children to disembark on August 17. Five EU countries — Spain, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal — agreed to take in the rest, although details of the understanding have yet to be finalized.
On August 18, the Spanish government announced that the Open Arms would be allowed to dock at the Spanish port of Algeciras in Cádiz, and at Mahón in Menorca in the Balearic Islands. The captain of the Open Arms, however, rejected the offer. He argued that it was "impossible" to attempt the four- to six-day journey given the conditions on board: "We cannot endanger the security and physical integrity of the migrants and crew. We need to dock now."
The captain's refusal to accept Spain's offer fueled suspicion about the financial and political motivations behind the migrant rescues — including efforts by Open Arms and other NGOs to promote open borders by discrediting Salvini's hardline immigration policies.
"We are facing the umpteenth mockery of the Spanish Open Arms, which for days has been wandering around the Mediterranean for the sole purpose of gathering as many people as possible to bring them always and only to Italy," Salvini tweeted. "In all this time they already could have gone back and forth to a Spanish port three times. These NGOs are only political. They are using the immigrants against our country. I will not give up."
Spain's acting Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo expressed bafflement at Open Arms. In an interview with Spanish radio Cadena SER, she noted that the ship could easily have docked in Tunisia or Malta but refused to do so:
"We do not understand the position of Open Arms. We have offered all types of support: medical attention, supplies. We understand the situation is critical because of the uncertainty and desperation, but once you tell them they have a safe port, the migrants know they are going to arrive, and anybody can understand that there is no problem."
On August 20, the Spanish government dispatched a warship, the Audaz, from the Rota naval base to pick up the migrants and take them to the Spanish island of Mallorca. The round-trip voyage, however, was estimated to take at least a week and Patronaggio acted after reports that some migrants were suicidal.
The Italian government later impounded the Open Arms after the Italian Coast Guard, in an inspection, found "serious security anomalies." The Italian Ministry of Transport said that the ship would not be allowed to leave Sicily until the problems were remedied.
Italian Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli called on the Spanish government to crack down on the activities of the Open Arms by de-registering the vessel and removing its Spanish flag. "I hope that Spain answers our appeal and commits to stopping Open Arms in the future with the means, and in the ways, it deems right," he said. A de-flagged ship would legally be unable to continue picking up migrants.
The Spanish government, facing growing criticism over its handling of the standoff, has since expressed a harder line against the Open Arms NGO. On August 21, Calvo told Cadena SER radio that the Open Arms did not have a permit to transport migrants and could be fined €900,000 ($1,000,000) for violating an express ban on sailing to the seas off Libya: "Open Arms does not have a permit to rescue, as the captain of the ship knows. This is a state ruled by law. We are all subject to the law."
In the past, however, the Spanish government has worked closely with Open Arms. In August 2018, the NGO announced that it had reached an agreement with the government to coordinate migrant rescues in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea. That same month, Spanish Development Minister José Luis Ábalos heaped praise on Open Arms for rescuing "tens of thousands of people since 2015." It remains unclear if the NGO is receiving money from the government for its activities.
The Spanish anti-immigration party Vox filed a lawsuit against Open Arms and called for the arrest of the ship's captain, Óscar Camps. "Disguising its activities as 'rescue work,' this 'NGO' is an accomplice to the people-smuggling of international mafia networks," Vox leader Santiago Abascal tweeted, adding:
"Open Arms does not rescue shipwrecked people. If it did, it would take them to the nearest port. What it does is use immigrants as an extortion tool against countries that choose to defend their sovereignty.
"These fake humanitarian organizations, in the name of solidarity, exploit the good will of many people. Their work, however, is promoted by those who want to destroy the borders of Europe, and only benefits human traffickers.
"For all these reasons, we will act firmly and forcefully against any NGO, government, association or group that intends to continue promoting illegal, massive immigration and subject us to the interests of international human trafficking mafias.
"This unlawful and criminal activity endangers our welfare state, our sovereignty, the safety of Spaniards and even the lives they claim to rescue. They will have to answer to the courts sooner rather than later."
European charity vessels have repeatedly attempted — with varying degrees of success — to bring migrants rescued at sea to Italian ports:
December 22, 2018. The Spanish ship Open Arms, carrying 311 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya, sailed to the Spanish port of Algeciras after the vessel was refused entry by Italy and Malta. "Italian ports are CLOSED," Salvini tweeted. "The human traffickers and their accomplices know that our ports are closed, STOP!" he added.
March 19, 2019. The Italian-flagged charity ship Mare Jonio was impounded after it docked at a port in Lampedusa and dropped off 49 migrants picked up in waters off Libya. "The ship of the anarchist squats has been seized, excellent," Salvini said. "In Italy there is now a government that defends borders and makes laws respected, above all by the people traffickers. Those who do wrong will pay." Earlier he had said that the migrants would not be allowed to enter Italy: "They can be treated, dressed and fed. We can give them any kind of comfort, but they will not set foot in Italy."
May 10, 2019. The Mare Jonio was again impounded after it docked at a port in Lampedusa and dropped off 30 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya.
June 29, 2019. Italian authorities arrested the 31-year-old German captain of the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3, operated by German charity Sea-Watch, after she illegally docked the vessel carrying 40 migrants at Lampedusa. Salvini tweeted: "Outlaw arrested. Pirate ship seized. Big fine on foreign NGO. Migrants all redistributed in other European countries. Mission completed." An Italian judge subsequently released her on the grounds that she had been acting to save lives. The decision angered Salvini, who said it would encourage other charity vessels to defy the docking ban.
July 6, 2019. The Italian-flagged charity vessel Alex, in defiance of Salvini, brought 41 shipwrecked migrants into port in Lampedusa. Salvini tweeted: "To break the law, these jackals put the lives of immigrants on board at risk. Will they also go unpunished? In a serious country, arrests and seizure of the vessel would be immediate: what will the judges do this time???"
Meanwhile, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, operated by two French charities, was allowed to dock in Malta late on August 23 after being refused entry into Italy. The ship, carrying 356 migrants, had been sailing between Sicily and Lampedusa for two weeks while waiting for permission to dock in Italy. The migrants will be relocated to France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Romania.
In an essay published by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo on August 24, José María Ruiz Soroa, a distinguished professor of maritime law at the University of the Basque Country, explained that European NGOs are manipulating gaps between national laws, which restrict migration, and international law, which require helping shipwrecked persons, in order to deliver illegal immigrants to the EU.
Ruiz Soroa wrote that NGOs are abusing international maritime laws (mainly the International Convention on Salvage and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue) which require ship captains to rescue shipwrecked persons they find at sea and deliver them to a safe place or port. He noted that "safe ports" as defined by those laws would allow NGOs to return shipwrecked persons to Libya, but the NGOs insist on transporting them to Europe:
"It is quite clear that when the organized networks that control migrants from Libya throw people into the sea in vessels that lack even the slightest navigability conditions to safely transport them to European ports, what they are doing is deliberately placing them into the legal status of shipwrecked persons. These are not shipwrecks caused by maritime accidents, as contemplated by international law, they are 'shipwrecks of convenience.' No matter how much migrants do it out of desperation, they formally become shipwrecked to obtain that legal status, and once rescued, they are allowed to enter Europe by bypassing the ban on illegal immigration.
"In the final analysis, what we are witnessing in Mediterranean waters is one of the most obvious cases of legal fraud imaginable: intentionally creating the appearance of a factual event regulated in a certain way in a special law... to escape the inexorable application of the general law that really corresponds to that underlying factual situation; which is one of emigration and that is prohibitive. Bypass one law based on another. The Civil Code, and common sense, say that such a trick is illegal.
"Does this mean that the castaways found (pursued by?) by the Open Arms should have been abandoned to their fate? Obviously not. Human life is well above such consideration, and the fake shipwrecked persons of the Open Arms should be helped.... This situation of widespread legal fraud, however, is that the affected states intervene to stop and prevent the actions of private individuals, enthusiasts and well-intentioned do-gooders who only aggravate the problem. The rescues become a state matter when relevant public interest aspects are at stake, as it is with the environment, and as it should be in the case of illegal immigration.
"The Spanish government intervened months ago: The Open Arms was prohibited from rescuing shipwrecked people in Libyan waters. The ban was not made on a whim but on the well-founded suspicion that the presence of the Open Arms in those waters would encourage potential migrants to endanger themselves in the hope of being rescued. The shipowners, however, violated the ban when they decided on their own that the law can be broken when a suffering humanity is placed on the other side of the scale of justice....
"There will be shipwrecked people of convenience (and some will die for it) as long as they have a confirmed hope that there will be rescuers waiting for them out there. It is an unsustainable deadly loop that must be cut somewhere."
A recent Ipsos poll published by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera found that a majority of Italians support Salvini's hard line on immigration: 59% said that they agree with his decision to close Italian ports to migrant rescue ships; 71% said that other European countries should do more to share the burden. The poll also found that a majority of Italians (56%) believe that the NGOs involved in rescuing migrants are motivated by money; only 22% believe they are motivated by humanitarianism.
Since Salvini announced his hardline immigration policies in June 2018, the number of migrant arrivals to Italy — as well as the number of dead and missing — has significantly decreased. The number of arrivals by sea fell from 119,369 in 2017 to 23,370 in 2018, a drop of 80%, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During that same period, the number of dead and missing fell from 2,873 to 1,311, a decline of more than 50%.
A similar trend has continued in 2019: 2,800 migrants arrived in Italy by sea between January and June of 2019, compared to 16,600 during the same six-month period in 2018 and 83,800 in 2017, according to the UNHCR.
Of those who arrived in Italy by sea in 2019, 600 (21%) were from Tunisia; 400 (14%) were from Pakistan; 300 (10%) were from Algeria; 300 (10%) were from Iraq; 200 (7%) were from Ivory Coast; 200 (7%) were from Bangladesh; 100 (3.5%) were from Sudan; 100 (3.5%) were from Iran; 100 (3.5%) were from Morocco; and 50 (1.7%) were from Egypt, according to the UNHCR.
The data indicates that most of the migrants who arrived in Italy during the first six months of 2019 are economic migrants, not refugees fleeing warzones.