Gerard Canals, operation officer at the NGO Proactiva Open Arms, is not afraid of jail. Earlier this month, the Spanish NGO helped save more than 200 people from drowning in the central Mediterranean.
“I may go to prison but I am not really worried because we did nothing wrong,” he told EUobserver on Tuesday (27 March) in Brussels.
Canals, along with the captain of the NGO rescue ship, as well as the head of the mission, face 15 year prison sentences and millions of euros in fines for their actions, according to the NGO.
The chief prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, has accused them of trafficking for having refused to hand people rescued over to the Libyans.
The Spanish boat had plucked the people, including children, some 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, well outside Libyan territorial waters, after receiving a rescue distress signal from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.
The NGO was then instructed to hand them over to the Libyan coast guard. But when the boat showed up, people refused to board the Libyan vessel.
Canals said the two sides had argued for some three hours before the Libyans instructed them to take the migrants back to Italy.
“So one way or another we did what we were supposed to do,” said Canals.
It is the first time the NGO were told to hand over migrants to Libyans. The NGO was fearful of possible illegal push-backs to Libya given the rescue was well beyond Libyan territorial waters. The principle of ‘non-refoulement’ means refugees and migrants cannot be forced back to a place they are fleeing from.
Canals was not on the boat during the rescue operation and has yet to receive any formal charges from the Italian prosecutor. “It may never happen if they don’t communicate to us in a couple of days,” he said.
The NGO has, however, handed over all materials, images, and data to Italian authorities.
NGOs told to stay away
But the implications and broader message is clear – NGO rescue boats are not welcome in the central Mediterranean.
The boats appeared shortly after Italy had ended its Mare Nostrum naval search and rescue operation.
In 2016, there were 11 NGO vessels operating rescues. Last year it dropped to nine after Italians imposed code of conduct rules on NGOs. Today there is only one, run by Doctors without Borders (MSF).
The crackdown appears to have helped curb departure numbers from Libya itself. Some 71 percent of all departures this year left from Libya, down from 95 percent last year. More people are looking towards Tunisia, which now represents 20 percent of departures.
It is unclear why the Libyan coast guard was operating so far away from its territorial waters. Last year, the Italians hailed Libyan efforts to designate a search and rescue zone.
But the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN agency which oversees the zones, says it has yet to receive any notification from the Libyans.
“So far, Libya has not provided any information to our Global SAR plan database,” an IMO spokesperson, said in an email on Tuesday.
The issue is important. NGO Proactiva Open Arms president, Oscar Camps, remains perplexed on what the Libyan boat was doing so far out at sea.
“If they don’t have a search and rescue area recognised and in operation, under which grounds is the Libyan coast operating at the distance of 73 miles away from the coast?” he said.
The EU has promised over €46m to help the Libyan coast guard in their rescue operations in “manner fully compliant with international human rights obligations.”
It includes setting up basic operational rooms in Tripoli to coordinate rescues, train the Libyan guard, and supply them with rescue equipment, rubber boats, and communication.
It has launched a Spanish led surveillance network known as the Seahorse Seahorse Mediterranean Network.
The European Commission had last week defended the Italian code of conduct pact. It had also said that the Libyans were working within their territorial waters.
“According to the Italian coast guard, they were working within their territorial waters and we have nothing to add at the moment,” noted EU commission spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, on 19 March.
Nikolaj Nielsen / EUobserver