Italy has impounded a rescue ship and threatened criminal charges against two members of its crew and the founder of the organization after they refused to turn migrants over to Libyan forces, fearing that they would be abused, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 18, 2018, an Italian prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, impounded the Spanish rescue group Proactiva’s ship Open Arms and is considering levelling charges of criminal association for the purposes of facilitating irregular migration after Proactiva refused to transfer people rescued in international waters to a Libyan patrol boat. Everyone intercepted by Libyan forces or handed over to them is taken to Libya and placed in detention.
“Proactiva acted to save migrants’ lives and then prevented them from being abused in indefinite detention,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is perverse to try to characterize as criminal a refusal to hand victims to Libyan coast guard forces knowing they could face possible torture and rape in Libyan detention centers.”
International human rights and refugee law prohibits returning anyone to a place where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment – the nonrefoulement principle. Empowering Libyan forces to capture people on the high seas, when it is known that they will return them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in arbitrary detention exposes Italy and other European Union (EU) states involved to charges of aiding and abetting in serious human rights violations in detention, Human Rights Watch said.
Italy’s strategy to reduce boat arrivals is in line with the EU’s approach to migration cooperation with Libya. The EU is supporting training and technical assistance to Libyan coast guard forces nominally under the United Nations (UN) and EU-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, and wants to expand those efforts. Despite EU insistence, the International Maritime Organization has not yet recognized a Libyan search-and-rescue zone, and Libya does not yet have a fully functioning maritime rescue coordination center.
Italy has delivered four patrol boats to Libyan coast guard forces. The Libyan forces included patrol boat 648, which was involved in this incident as well as a deadly intervention in November 2017 that cost the lives of at least 50 people, according to the German nongovernmental group Sea-Watch.
Based on a detailed incident report provided by Proactiva, the Open Arms responded on March 15 to an overcrowded rubber dinghy in international waters, 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) informed the Open Arms after it reached the rubber boat that Libyan forces had command over the operation, but told the Open Arms crew to use their judgment. For the security of the people on board the rubber dinghy, Proactiva decided to provide everyone with life jackets and to transfer all the women and children to Proactiva’s rigid-hulled inflatable boats and stayed nearby.
Libyan coast guard patrol boat 648 reached the scene approximately 30 minutes later. Anabel Montes, the search-and-rescue coordinator on board Open Arms, told Human Rights Watch that coast guard officers threatened via megaphone and radio, in English, to kill the crew on the Proactiva boat holding women and children if it did not turn them over. Eleven men jumped out of the rubber boat into the water and were also taken on board by the Proactiva boats. At one point, the Libyan patrol boat and its own rubber dinghy sandwiched one of the Proactiva boats, and an unarmed Libyan officer boarded to convince people to transfer to the patrol boat. He desisted in the face of everyone’s refusal to cooperate.
After a three-hour stand-off, the Proactiva crew were able to safely transfer all women, children, and men to the Open Arms ship and proceed north. For more than 24 hours, the crew was unsure where they would be able to disembark the rescued people. The Italian Maritime rescue coordination center told them Italy had not coordinated the rescue and was therefore not responsible.
The national coordination center in Madrid, Spain, the ship’s flag state, told them they couldn’t help because Proactiva had performed a rescue in “Libya’s SAR zone.” Malta agreed to evacuate an infant and her mother for medical reasons. The Spanish government interceded on Proactiva’s behalf, and Italy eventually allowed disembarkation in Pozzallo, Sicily, on the morning of March 17.
The prospect of charges against Proactiva is the latest in a series of measures to discredit nongovernmental rescue groups, Human Rights Watch said. Anti-immigrant groups and some media carried out a concerted smear campaign in 2017. Carmelo Zuccaro, the Sicilian prosecutor who opened the investigation against Proactiva, made the news last year with broad accusations of complicity between rescue groups and smuggling networks, even though Zuccaro later confirmed to a parliamentary inquiry he had no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Another Sicilian prosecutor sequestered the Iuventus, a ship operated by the German group Jugend Rettet in August and is still pursuing an investigation into alleged facilitation of irregular migration. The Italian government imposed a code of conduct in July on rescue groups that serves a dual purpose of implying they need management and of restricting their ability to operate effectively.
“It is shocking that Europe has reached the point of criminalizing rescue at sea,” Sunderland said. “Europeans should support, not smear, people saving lives in the Mediterranean, and remember that EU and Italian policies are propping up a cycle of detention and violence in Libya, while groups like Proactiva are saving lives.”