Merchant Marine chief Benito Nunez Quintanilla warned NGO Open Arms that it was not authorised to conduct rescues in the southern Mediterranean, according to leaked letter.
Spain’s Merchant Marine, a government directorate, has reportedly threatened Spanish NGO Open Arms with fines of up to 901,000 euros (around $1,011,960 USD) should it rescue migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean, prompting outrage from rights groups and Spanish citizens alike.
A letter signed by Benito Nunez Quintanilla, the highest representative of the Merchant Marine, warned Oscar Camps, the captain of the Open Arms vessel, that it may not undertake “search and rescue operations” that do not conform to the authorities of the search and rescue zone (SAR), Italy and Malta, and that it may not “initiate navigation with the purpose” of conducting such operations.
Otherwise, the NGO could face fines of 300,000 euros (roughly $334,000) or the previously mentioned 900,000 euros (roughly $1m) , as well as being ordered back to a Spanish port where the boat would be ‘paralysed’, the letter, obtained by Spanish daily El Diario, said.
Open Arms operates in the sea between Libya and southern Europe, aiding migrants and asylum seekers who face difficulties and danger in their crossing from North Africa.
Fines for rescue
The journey from North Africa and the Levant is perilous. According to the Missing Migrants Project, which tracks the number of migrants and asylum seekers who have been lost along the mixed migration routes, at least 681 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2019.
The Spanish Committee for Help to Refugees said in a tweet: “It’s unacceptable that the Spanish government threatens [huge] sanctions on NGOs that try to save lives, as is the case with Open Arms, instead of facilitating this work and respect of human rights.”
Furthermore, ships are legally required to save lives.
Maritime law mandates that the crew of ships who see others in danger must do their best to save lives. However, Italian and Spanish authorities have blocked ships with rescued migrants from docking in their ports.
Italy’s Matteo Salvini, a far-right politician who serves as Minister of the Interior, has been especially strict. Salvini has closed ports and introduced laws that would impose fines of up to 50,000 euros (roughly $56,000US), much less than those threatened by Spanish authorities.
Italy alleged that German ship captain Carola Rakete, who works with migrant rescue NGO Sea-Watch, attempted to ram into an Italian military vessel when her ship forced its way into the Lampedusa dock, which was closed.
But Judge Alessandra Vella ordered Rakete’s release on July 2, saying she was carrying out her duty to protect life and had not committed an act of violence.
“She will go back to Germany where authorities would not have been that tolerant if an Italian captain had made an attempt on the lives of German police officers,” Salvini was quoted as saying after her release.
The EU has dealt with a notable increase in migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa, due in large part to wars and economic instability in the region.
Germany has been at the forefront of accepting asylum seekers and migrants in the EU, with a refugee population of over one million, according to figures from the World Bank.
“Italy isn’t any old nation,” Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview with broadcaster ZDF. “Italy is in the middle of the European Union, a founding state of the European Union. And therefore we should be able to expect a nation such as Italy to deal with a case like this in a different way.”
To Ana Porcel, a Barcelona resident and pro-Catalan Independence activist familiar with Open Arms work – the NGO is headquartered in Badalona, north of Barcelona – the fines are absurd.
“The Spanish government has accepted very few refugees compared to other European Union (EU) states”, Porcel said, citing figures that show Spain accepted a record-breaking 54,000 requests for asylum in 2018, roughly a quarter of applicants were accepted.
The acceptance rate of 24 percent dropped Spain to the bottom of the seven EU countries with the highest asylum applications.
“We can’t let these people drown,” Porcel concluded.
The Spanish government and Merchant Marine did not immediately respond to TRT World’s requests for comment.