Interview. We spoke with Riccardo Gatti, the head of mission for Open Arms, the Catalan rescue NGO. Their ship is back at sea, just days after the arrest of the captain of their German counterpart, Sea Watch 3. ‘If we encounter a ship in difficulty during our mission, we will intervene.’

Europe’s institutional attacks on Rescue NGOs

On Thursday, the ship belonging to the Catalan NGO Proactiva Open Arms set sail from the port of Naples after months of being held there, and headed toward “the deadliest border on the planet: the central Mediterranean.” 

On Saturday, Interior Minister Salvini issued his customary threats: “NGOs better listen to stay out of trouble: enormous fines, seizure of the boats, prohibition of entry into the territorial waters, and, in case of disobedience, arrest. Since the Open Arms and the Alan Kurdi [belonging to the German NGO Sea Eye] look like they’re drawing close to Libya—you have understood how it works in Italy, don’t take us for fools any longer.” 

Riccardo Gatti, head of mission for Proactiva Open Arms, clarifies: “We intended to head first towards Lampedusa, to bring our solidarity to the Sea Watch, supplying it with basic necessities.”

Mr. Gatti, Captain Carola Rackete pushed through the blockade to get the survivors to land. For this, she was arrested.

One cannot but feel shame when realizing that the crisis situation aboard the Sea Watch 3 was created once again by the despicable behavior of some members of the Italian government, who are using the institutions however they please. These are actions that we have been continuously denouncing for years, and which are increasing in violence every day. They are acts of institutionalized abuse, using every possible means, from outright lies to the concoction of decrees that try to extricate them from their international legal obligations, continuously violating international conventions. The representatives of the Italian government are showing their contempt for human life.

Salvini argues that it’s necessary to safeguard the borders.

We are talking about an extremely small number of rescued people, who, instead of being allowed to land as soon as possible by the competent authorities, which is an obligation, have been used as pawns for political propaganda by the government. We support the crew of the Sea Watch 3, the captain and the NGO, and we firmly support the decisions they have taken. This is about the protection of life and dignity of persons.

What is your mission?

To monitor and report human rights violations. When there are no NGOs at sea, it is easier to collectively reject shipwreck survivors. We emphasize that collective rejections are illegal for European states. So is not rescuing people and leaving them to die. If we encounter a ship in difficulty during our mission, we will intervene, because it is a specific legal obligation, and if we didn’t, we would violate the laws of the sea. 

At that point, we will ask the competent Coordination Center for the nearest safe port for landing, which, in the central Mediterranean, can only be in Malta or Italy. If no such port is provided, the member states must take responsibility for violating the laws. Even the Italian Foreign Minister knows that Libya has no safe ports. There are court rulings and UN documents which have found that criminal militias are part of the Coast Guard in Tripoli, but Italy and the EU are entering into agreements with them. Our mission is to protect people who are in mortal danger by our presence, until the responsible authorities deign to provide these services instead.

The Netherlands has made enrollment in their shipping register more restrictive. Italy has approved a security decree to prevent the landing of NGO vessels. What about Spain?

They held us in place in Barcelona for two months. In April, we delivered 20 tons of humanitarian aid to Lesvos, in Greece. They gave us permission to sail, but only if we obeyed imposed rules: not carrying out search and rescue activities and not entering the Libyan search and rescue area, on pain of a fine between €300,000 and €900,000. Then, they held us again for months, for no real reason. In the end, we got the green light, but if we perform rescues without authorization or refuse to obey the coordination of the competent authorities, we will be fined up to €900,000. 

They are dismantling international regulations by administrative means for the sole purpose of blocking NGOs. For example, on June 7, the Asso Venticinque ship landed in Pozzallo with 62 shipwreck survivors. But because this is a support ship for ENI oil platforms, there was not a peep from any minister.

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