Migrant rescue NGOs defy European states

by Daniel BOSQUE
Proactiva Open Arms founder, Oscar Camps, has called on EU members to take in the 12 people his ship rescued off the Libyan coast last week

A Spanish charity that saved 121 migrants in the Mediterranean last week vowed Monday to continue sea rescue operations, the latest NGO to defy moves by European nations to shut down a route exploited by trafficking gangs.

Proactiva Open Arms founder Oscar Camps called on EU members to take in the 121 people his ship rescued last week off the coast of Libya, including two babies and another 30 minors, who need "medical and psychiatric assistance."

"We will continue until the European Union changes its migration policy," Camps told AFP by telephone as the charity's ship, the Open Arms, was about 50 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, waiting for permission to dock at a nearby port.

His is the latest rescue NGO to take to the seas to save lives despite a refusal by European ports to accept migrants.

On Sunday, humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee relaunched rescue efforts seven months after it abandoned operations with its ship Aquarius, dispatching its new vessel, Ocean Viking, from France.

It is now sailing towards the Libyan coast to save those trying to cross to Europe on this central Mediterranean route that has seen 576 die so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

- Trafficking gangs -

Italy, which has taken an increasingly hardline stance against accepting undocumented migrants under a populist government, has denounced the role of trafficking gangs that pile migrants into rickety boats and send them into the Mediterranean.

Its European partners have also pointed the finger at these gangs, as have NGOs.

But while Rome says saving migrants only encourages people smugglers, NGOs counter that departures continue even without rescue boats and drownings increase.

"Our presence at sea is to save lives. We hope that the countries will understand and join with us as there is no other solution in the central Mediterranean," Frederic Penard, head of operations at SOS Mediterranee, told AFP in July.

But EU countries still seek to dissuade them.

- NGOs 'scapegoats' -

The NGOs "are isolated and singled out as scapegoats," says Matteo Villa, a researcher at Italy's ISPI Institute for International Political Studies.

"There is no proof of concerted action (by EU states against NGOs) but there is a convergence in interests, that much is obvious," he adds.

SOS Mediterranee's Aquarius ship stopped operations in December 2018 after having rescued 30,000 migrants because of what the group said was obstruction by some European countries.

Panama revoked the ship's right to fly its flag following a request from the Italian government.

The NGO's new ship, the Ocean Viking, has set sail under a Norwegian flag.

The Open Arms was retained for months in Barcelona by the Spanish government which threatened it with a fine of up to 900,000 euros ($1 million) when the ship returned to the rescue zone in June.

Carola Rackete, the German captain of the Sea-Watch 3 which belongs to the charity of the same name, was arrested in June in Italy for docking without permission to land rescued migrants.

Her arrest was overturned by a court and she was released, but the ship was seized.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini insists that rescued migrants can only land in Italy if an agreement is already in place with other European countries to look after them.

But the NGOs are pressing on regardless.

On Sunday, 40 migrants aboard the Alan Kurdi ship, run by the NGO Sea-Eye, were allowed into Malta after a distribution agreement was made between several EU countries.

Camps said he wanted a similar solution to be found for the 121 migrants rescued on board the Open Arms.

"Italy, Malta or the European Union itself must work to find a solution because the rights of these people are being violated," he said.

Proactiva Open Arms founder, Oscar Camps, has called on EU members to take in the 12 people his ship rescued off the Libyan coast last week