Europe: “Mediterranean Taxis” for people-smugglers

The captain’s refusal to accept Spain’s help fueled suspicion about the financial and political motivations behind the migrant rescues


Italian authorities have seized a Spanish migrant rescue ship after a three-week standoff between the Italian government and the Spanish charity operating the vessel.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had refused to allow the Open Arms rescue ship, carrying more than 80 mostly African migrants, to dock in Italy. The refusal was in line with his crackdown on migrant smuggling that has effectively closed Italian ports to migrant rescue boats since June 2018.

Salvini has accused European non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of coordinating with people-smuggling mafias to pick up migrants off the coast of Libya and transport them to Italian ports. Italian officials have referred to the charity rescue boats as “Mediterranean taxis” for people-smugglers.

Sicilian prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio on August 20 ordered the Open Arms, anchored one kilometer off Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa, to dock in Sicily so that its passengers could disembark. He made the decision, in opposition to Salvini, after more than a dozen migrants jumped overboard and tried to swim to shore. Subsequent video footage showed that Open Arms staged the jumps to manipulate public opinion.

The Open Arms, operated by a Spanish NGO of the same name, had picked up 147 migrants off the coast of Libya on August 1. The Italian government allowed those in need of medical attention and all unaccompanied children to disembark on August 17. Five EU countries — Spain, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal — agreed to take in the rest, although details of the understanding have yet to be finalized.

On August 18, the Spanish government announced that the Open Arms would be allowed to dock at the Spanish port of Algeciras in Cádiz, and at Mahón in Menorca in the Balearic Islands. The captain of the Open Arms, however, rejected the offer. He argued that it was “impossible” to attempt the four- to six-day journey given the conditions on board: “We cannot endanger the security and physical integrity of the migrants and crew. We need to dock now.”

The captain’s refusal to accept Spain’s offer fueled suspicion about the financial and political motivations behind the migrant rescues — including efforts by Open Arms and other NGOs to promote open borders by discrediting Salvini’s hardline immigration policies.

“We are facing the umpteenth mockery of the Spanish Open Arms, which for days has been wandering around the Mediterranean for the sole purpose of gathering as many people as possible to bring them always and only to Italy,” Salvini tweeted. “In all this time they already could have gone back and forth to a Spanish port three times. These NGOs are only political. They are using the immigrants against our country. I will not give up.”

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