BRUSSELS – The captain of a humanitarian rescue ship who was arrested for docking in an Italian port without authorization took aim Thursday at the European Union for outsourcing to conflict-ravaged Libya the handling of migrants seeking refuge and better lives in Europe.
The comments by Sea Watch 3 skipper Carola Rackete came as EU lawmakers were debating Mediterranean search and rescue methods amid the increasing criminalization by member countries of non-governmental organizations, activists and volunteers who help people attempting the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing.
“The EU member states have engaged in a policy of externalization of their responsibilities and a practice of pushbacks and omissions of rescue, delegating interventions to a country at war, Libya, in breach of international law,” Rackete said to applause and occasional harangues from far-right lawmakers.
Rackete was held under house arrest for four days for forcing the vessel into port on Italy’s southern Lampedusa island after 17 days at sea with 40 migrants aboard. A Sicilian judge ordered her release in July.
Rackete said she hoped the EU’s new focus on search and rescue methods will result in “some real improvement and not just a mixed bag making it even more difficult for people like me and many, many organizations to carry out solidarity and to help people who are in danger.”
According to an EU parliament study released in December, the bloc’s rules could allow countries to prosecute people acting for humanitarian reasons. Only four of the 28 EU member states — Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal — are in line with United Nations standards requiring proof that people accused of smuggling migrants have obtained financial or material benefit from their actions.
“Society in general is encouraged to view humanitarians as criminal suspects and individuals and groups are discouraged from providing assistance to vulnerable asylum seekers and migrants,” the study said.
The EU, its member countries and agencies do not actively look for people crossing the Mediterranean, although their ships will respond to emergency calls if they are in the vicinity. NGOs are under pressure for actively searching for the rickety boats and rubber rafts and are routinely accused of defying orders from European maritime authorities.
Italy’s previous anti-migrant government authorized court action and big fines for crews who tried to enter its waters without permission.
Michael Shotter, a senior European Commission migration official, told the lawmakers that “no form of genuine assistance to migrants — be it to those in distress at sea, or to those in a state of necessity on EU territory — should be criminalized under EU law.”
Yet the reality is that the Europeans have shifted legal practices when it comes to Mediterranean rescues.
Italy initially coordinated search and rescue but as migrant arrival numbers climbed, Europeans increased their efforts to halt the influx at its source. The EU has allocated more than €360 million ($394 million) to control migration in northern Africa, much of it focused on Libya. At least another €46 million ($51 million) were earmarked for the Libyan coast guard.
In a move not widely announced in June 2018, the Libyan government in Tripoli — which has little influence over much of the country — registered a massive search-and-rescue area in the Mediterranean about halfway to Lampedusa.
Almost all rescues happen in international waters within about 50 km (30 miles) of the Libyan coast, so NGOs are obliged to contact the coast guard there first. But under international law, charity groups say they cannot return people to Tripoli as the coast guard demands because the migrants might be killed.
The authorities in Italy and Malta say the rescues are not their responsibility and refuse to help.
Several European officials acknowledged that Libya is not considered a safe country for migrants.
Shotter conceded that the EU is “extremely concerned by the deterioration of conditions on the ground” in Libya, where at least 1,000 people have been killed, including 106 civilians, in fighting over the last five months. More than 105,000 people have been forced from their homes.
Asked if she would still defy EU authorities in similar circumstances, Rackete — whose charity vessel remains impounded in Italy — said: “There is a huge need for ships to be out there. People are dying every day so I would do it again. … I was in compliance with the international maritime law.”
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