Analysis. The prosecutor in Agrigento, Italy, this week opened an investigation into the German NGO for ‘favoring illegal immigration.’ Forty-three migrants remain stranded at sea, with Italian ports closed.

On World Refugee Day, Italy investigates Sea Watch for saving migrants

It looks like a scene from a movie we’ve already seen too many times. On Tuesday, the deputy prosecutor of Agrigento, Salvatore Vella, opened an investigation into the Sea Watch 3. As of Thursday, World Refugee Day, the ship belonging to the German NGO is carrying 43 migrants and has been stuck off Lampedusa for the past six days.

The Italian prosecutor decided to launch an investigation for the presumed crime of favoring illegal immigration, without naming any suspects, after the landing on Saturday in Lampedusa of over a dozen migrant women and children.

One month ago to the day, the exact same dynamic played out and led Vella to open an investigation against the Sea Watch, one which named its captain, Arturo Centore, as a suspect for the same crime of favoring illegal immigration. However, back then, the same logic led to the approval of the landing of the 47 migrants who were on board and to the seizure of the ship, which was later revoked. Matteo Salvini furiously criticized that decision to allow the landing, which was made by the office headed by chief prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio.

“I’m ready to sue for favoring illegal immigration anyone who is willing to let illegal immigrants disembark from an outlaw ship,” the Interior Minister said at the time, followed by a pointed reference to Patronaggio: “This also applies to state institutions. If the prosecutor authorizes the landing, I will go all the way.”

Although it is not a given, the possibility cannot be excluded that we will see a repeat of the scenes that played out a month ago. The decision of the Agrigento prosecutor’s office to open an investigation came after the news—released by the Interior Ministry—that the Lazio Regional Administrative Court had rejected the appeal filed on Monday by the legal team of the Sea Watch 3, which asked for a suspension of the June 15 order forbidding the ship from entering Italian territorial waters, signed by the ministers Salvini, Toninelli and Trenta. If the appeal had been accepted, it would have allowed the landing of the migrants who are still on board, among whom are six women and three unaccompanied minors.

“We have not received anything, and actually it seems unusual that other parties would become aware of a court decision before the parties are informed,” said Lucia Gennari, one of the lawyers for the NGO.

The EU institutions remain silent about what is happening in the Mediterranean, simply reiterating that Libya cannot be considered a safe haven where migrants can land. The Council of Europe, however, delivered a resounding rejection of the “closed ports” policy of the yellow-green Italian government, in the form of a report by the Strasbourg-based institution which called for a halt in the cooperation with Libya.

“I am worried about the Italian government’s attitude toward NGOs that conduct rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” said the Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, calling for the Sea Watch 3 to be “quickly assigned a safe port.” According to the statement by Mijatovic’s office, NGOs such as Sea Watch are crucial to saving lives at sea as they have “filled the vacuum left by states’ disengagement,” while “the European Union and individual European states continue to outsource border controls to third-countries with notorious human rights records.”

Mijatovic further said that, instead of stigmatizing NGOs and harassing them “with administrative and judicial proceedings,” states should take care to fulfill their “duty to effectively protect the rights enshrined in maritime, human rights and refugee laws.”

The Lega leader’s response to the findings of the Council of Europe was entirely predictable: “To me, their opinion is worth absolutely nothing. We’re working with the Libyan Coast Guard, we’re providing personnel and equipment, and there are UN representatives in some Libyan facilities,” Salvini said. “No one will arrive in Italy with my permission,” he concluded.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!