March 15th, 2018 was supposed to be one more day in Proactiva’s quest for monitoring and rescuing migrants in the Central Mediterranean. However, the events that happened that day triggered a legal battle between Proactiva and the Italian Government that ended up in the impoundment of our vessel, the Open Arms, leaving the Mediterranean with one less SAR NGO that could save lives in distress at sea.

On that day, the Open Arms responded to an overcrowded rubber dinghy’s call that was located in international waters. After the Open Arms reached the rubber boat and started aiding those on board, the IMRC informed us that the Libyan Coast Guard had command over the operation.

In spite of this, the crew of the Open Arms decided to prioritize the safety of the migrants and started providing life jackets and to transfer all the women and children to Proactiva’s RHIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats) and remained nearby. When the Libyan Coast Guard arrived on scene, the tension increased as they started threatening to kill the members of the crew, if we did not turn over the woman and children being rescued.

At the end, after a three-hours standoff, the Open Arms was able to rescue all the migrants and proceed north without further interference by the Libyan Coast Guard. Nevertheless, the problems were far from over. For the next 24 hours after the rescue, we had nowhere to disembark the migrants. Finally, after almost 48 hours at sea, we were able to make landfall in Sicily on March 17th.

Rather than recognition for our valuable contribution to protect human rights and avoid non-refoulement at sea, what came up for Proactiva was an accusation of being part of a smuggling network. As a consequence of this, Italy impounded the Open Arms and threatened criminal charges against two members of the crew and the coordinator of the organization.

Sadly, the criminalization of civil-society-led SAR operations is a phenomenon that has been going on for several months, leaving the Mediterranean with almost no presence of SAR NGOs. As Judith Sunderland, Director of Human Rights Watch said: ‘Proactiva acted to save migrants’ lives and then prevented them from being abused in indefinite detention. It is perverse to try to characterize as criminal a refusal to hand victims to the Libyan Coast Guard knowing they could face possible torture and rape in Libyan Detention Centers’.[1]

 The mission of Proactiva, as well as other fellow SAR NGOs, is only one: rescue persons in distress at sea whatever their status. Saving human lives is not negotiable and our organization is willing to stand for the rights of the most vulnerable, even if this entails false accusations or threats from the authorities from different countries. Saving lives is not a crime. It is a duty that must be fulfilled by anyone that is capable of fulfilling it. Ignoring the plight of people in danger makes one responsible of their suffering or death.

As our mission is well known and our organization has no involvement whatsoever in smuggling activities, the Italian authorities had no choice but to release the Open Arms.[2]

This is the first step of a continuing battle with EU State authorities that seek to discourage SAR NGOs from performing rescues. But, despite the pressure, we will prevail. RESCUE IS NOT A CRIME.

[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/19/italy-migrant-rescue-ship-impounded

[2] On April 16th, 2018 the judge for preliminary investigations of the Sicilian city of Ragusa ordered the release of the Open Arms. For more information, please refer to: https://openmigration.org/en/analyses/the-open-arms-case-continued-new-documents-and-malta/