By Forrest Crellin
PARIS (Reuters) – The German captain of rescue ships that saved hundreds of migrants’ lives in the Mediterranean has turned down Paris’s highest civilian award, accusing the city of hypocrisy over the treatment of migrants.
Paris awarded Pia Klemp and her compatriot Carola Rakete the Grand Vermeil Medal in July for their repeated bravery in bringing migrants to shore despite Italian efforts to stop them.
“We do not need authorities deciding who is a ‘hero’ and who is ‘illegal’,” Klemp said in a statement on Facebook late on Tuesday.
Addressing Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, she wrote: “You want to award me a medal … because our crews ‘work to rescue migrants from difficult conditions on a daily basis’.
“At the same time your police steal blankets from people you force to live on the streets while you suppress protests and criminalise people who defend the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.”
A Paris City Hall spokesman said officials would be in contact with Klemp.
“The City of Paris is fully mobilised to support the refugees, to shelter them and ensure a dignified respect for their humanity,” the mayor’s office told Reuters.
Charity vessels have struggled for more than a year to bring migrants rescued at sea to Italian shores, hindered by far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s tough line on immigration.
Five EU states agreed on Wednesday to take in scores of migrants stranded for weeks on board the crowded rescue ship Open Arms, ending a prolonged stand-off with Rome.
Paris awarded the two women skippers the medals after Rakete’s rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 ran a blockade surrounding the small Italian island of Lampedusa to land dozens of rescued African migrants. Rakete was arrested in Lampedusa on human-trafficking charges.
Klemp has been under investigation in Italy since one of her ships, the Iuventa, was impounded in Sicily two years ago by Italian authorities. She is accused of assisting illegal immigration.
Facing up to 20 years in jail if brought to trial and convicted, Klemp told German daily Basler Zeitung that she would fight the allegations all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
More than 250 people have been investigated, arrested or charged in the EU for their work with migrants and refugees over the past five years, according to research by openDemocracy, a UK-based website that focuses on social and political issues.
The honours awarded to Rackete and Klemp infuriated Italy’s populist Interior Minister Salvini, who promised Italians he would close the country’s ports to illegal migrants.
“Obviously the municipality of Paris has nothing better to do,” Salvini has said of the awards.
(Reporting by Forrest Crellin; Editing by Richard Lough and David Goodman)