On Sunday, Italian authorities ordered the seizure of Spanish NGO Proactiva’s ship, Open Arms, following the rescue and disembarkation of 216 persons. “We understand that Open Arms rescued people in international waters, and in one of the rescues at 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast the Libyan Coastguard threatened the rescue team with violence,” said Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager.
“There’s a disturbing level of cooperation between European governments and the Libyan Coastguard, ranging from training and material support, to paving the way for Libyan Coastguards in international waters, aimed at returning people to Libya.”
While the facts around the rescue and the seizure of the Proactiva ship are yet to be fully established, these actions bear the hallmark of a campaign of criminalisation against NGOs that carry out Search and Rescue operations.
“This is the latest in a long series of actions which are obstructing NGOs that are carrying out lifesaving rescue operations,” said Loof. “We are seeing an alarming trend by Italian and other European governments who actively seek to criminalise and block NGOs, including MSF, from conducting Search and Rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean.”
“Since the summer of 2017, Italian authorities, backed by the European Union, have increasingly obstructed NGO operations to save people’s lives at sea; from an ill-conceived code of conduct for NGOs to politically-exploited criminal investigations that feed the suspicious towards NGOs and directly affect their ability to continue their work,” added Loof.
As NGOs are obstructed from saving lives at sea and people are left with no safe route and legal alternative to flee from horrific levels of violence, abuse and exploitation, European governments are enforcing policies of deterrence and containment in Libya.
“Under no circumstance should refugees and migrants be returned to Libya or trapped there. Clearly European governments are not prioritising the safety of these people; rather they are playing a dirty game of politics while people’s lives hang in the balance,” concluded Loof.