Commentary. What Italy did—rejecting a vessel in distress—was illegal under international maritime law and sets a dangerous precedent in the Mediterranean. Europe must prevent its sea from becoming a mass grave.

With Aquarius, Italy sets a dangerous precedent

We don’t profess to be able to change the world or to end all the injustices on the planet. We just want to do what we can to prevent innocent people from drowning in the Mediterranean. We are rescue workers, and we cannot continue working on beaches full of tourists knowing that our sea has been converted into a macabre mass grave because of the hypocrisy of our European states, which have taken one more step in their wild obsession to turn Europe into an absurd fortress.

The Italian government’s decision to close its ports to the Aquarius and to other humanitarian rescue vessels is illegal and will result in more deaths in the Mediterranean. More deaths. That’s all. Because in the sea, it’s black and white: A few minutes separate life from death. In the high seas, precarious boats overflowing with people are an emergency, and in an emergency the highest priority is to save lives and to avoid putting other lives in danger. This is what rescue organizations do, even though many would prefer the migrants to be swallowed in the sea unnoticed.

With the Aquarius stuck in its particular crossroads through the Mediterranean, and with the Open Arms under repair in the shipyards of Burriana, Spain, there are only two humanitarian ships in the rescue zone off the Libyan coast these days: the Seefuchs and the Lifeboat. The Italian interior minister, the ultra-right-wing Matteo Salvini, has already announced that these ships would not be allowed to dock in Italy, either. Merchant vessels transiting through the zone, which are not prepared for such complicated rescues, have saved more than 500 people. No one knows how many have drowned without a trace.

We all know that what happened with the Aquarius should not happen again. First of all, because no human being deserves to be treated this way: After months of suffering all kinds of abuse and torture in Libya, 629 people, including children, have had to hold on for seven more days of distressing navigation to cross the Mediterranean, with waves four meters high, in ships that are only equipped to accommodate the shipwrecked for a few hours. Does anyone doubt that this treatment would have been labeled as impermissible and inhumane if they had been European citizens?

It should not happen again because, during the time the ship was in limbo, the crews were not able to do what they should have been doing: saving more lives. In addition to being inhumane, it’s an absurd waste of money: NGOs dedicated to saving lives in the sea cannot bear the cost (thousands of euros per day) of these extra days of navigation.

Aside from the moral considerations, the Italian government’s decision to close its ports to humanitarian ships is illegal. According to international maritime law—which logically does not distinguish between humanitarian, commercial or military ships—Italy has the obligation to offer a safe port in its territory. Holding the lives of 629 shipwrecked people hostage is unacceptable and sets a dangerous precedent in the Mediterranean, for which the European Union is also responsible. We all know as well that the new idea to establish disembarkation points outside European territory will only make things worse.

It’s also illegal to support the self-style “coast guards” from Tripoli—facilitated, supplied and financed by the previous Italian government—who don’t answer to any elected government and who have led very serious operations that have caused deaths at sea, besides threatening our crews at gunpoint on more than one occasion. Each time an operation with one of these armed groups is coordinated from Italy, another crime is committed: a collective expulsion that forces refugees to return to a place where their lives are in serious danger.

The United Nations and Italian judges, after years of investigations into rescue NGOs by the Sicilian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, have determined that our activities do not encourage illegal immigration. Salvini has already visited Libya with the goal of reinforcing these agreements with Libya. In other words: to outsource European border surveillance to unscrupulous actors who think the lives of the most vulnerable have no value.

Because of this, we return to the rescue zone. We’ll continuing doing what European apathy forced us to learn to do: to go where lives are in danger and try to keep our sea from swallowing men, women, boys and girls. And also so that, as long as this brutality continues, at least there’s someone there to witness and report it.

Òscar Camps is the founder and director of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms. This article appears in il manifesto and in El Pais.

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