Spain has said it will take in a survivor from a migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea along with the bodies of another woman and young child, amid a row between Italy and the NGO which picked them up.
The sea rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms has accused the Libyan coastguard of abandoning them and Italy of shutting its ports – charges both countries deny. The Italian interior minister responded by accusing the NGO of lying.
The Spanish government says the Open Arms ship can dock in Palma de Mallorca, where it is expected to arrive on Saturday.
What exactly happened is disputed and illustrates the poor state of relations between the Italian and Libyan authorities, and the rescue organisations.
Proactiva Open Arms is a UN-approved non-profit, non-governmental organisation from Spain, which rescues refugees from the Mediterranean.
It accused Libya’s coastguard of abandoning the trio in the shipwreck after the survivor – a woman named Josefa from Cameroon who later said she was fleeing domestic abuse – refused to board its boat. The charity released harrowing footage of the moment its rescuers found her, together with the two other dead migrants.
Libya’s coastguard denied having abandoned anyone on Tuesday, but did not explain how the trio were left in the wrecked boat.
Confusion followed when a German journalist on board a Libyan vessel described a rescue operation in which she praised their professionalism. “The team did everything they could to save everyone. The men were very compassionate,” Nadja Kriewald from RTL television said.
She said the group of “more than 100” migrants had been at sea for three days without food and water and were close to death.
However, an Italian politician who was on board another Spanish charity vessel in the area, said the reporter was talking about a separate rescue operation more than 100 kilometres away. “While one (Libyan) boat shot the perfect rescue operation with German TV, another left two women and a child in the middle of the sea. They were two different operations,” Erasmo Palazzotto wrote on Twitter.
The claim was disputed by Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who said the leftist parliamentarian had a political agenda and was unreliable.
The leader of the hard right League party also dismissed Proactiva’s version of events as “squalid propaganda”, alleging that it had found neither bodies nor survivors.
The charity said Italy had refused to take in the two bodies, a claim denied by the new coalition government which said access to the small island of Lampedusa had been turned down due to a lack of cold storage facilities.
“Despite the willingness of our Sicilian ports (to take them in), the NGO ship is going to Spain… Do they have something to hide???” Salvini tweeted.
Pressure on Brussels
Italy has vowed to stop the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean, and along with Malta has blocked aid groups from operating rescue boats. Rome has given aid to the Libyan authorities to handle rescues and take migrants back.
This has prompted anger from human rights activists including Open Arms, who argue that Libya is not a safe country. “There’s no central authority and everything is left to militias,” said one protester outside the Italian embassy in Brussels on Tuesday.
The European Union is calling on all sides to act responsibly. "What happened yesterday puts everybody in front of their responsibilities, definitely. We have to keep on working together with the Libyan authorities definitely, with Libyan coastguards and training them. But on the other hand all the countries from both sides of the Mediterranean have to put as one of their priorities saving lives," the European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, told Euronews.
Under its terms of operation, the EU’s anti-trafficking mission Sophia currently transfers migrants found at sea to Italy.
However, the Italian foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it would formally ask for an EU naval mission not to bring people rescued in the Mediterranean to Italian ports. It intends to lobby Brussels for a change in the rules.