ROME (AP) — The head of a Spanish aid group said Monday that he fears several staff members could be charged with human trafficking after they refused to hand over rescued migrants to the Libyan coast guard and took them to Italy instead.
Proactiva Open Arms founder Oscar Camps told reporters in Barcelona, Spain, where the group is based, that Italy impounded his organization’s rescue boat Sunday and he is worried the ship, Open Arms, might not be returned.
The case comes amid strong reluctance in Italy to take in any more of the migrants who human traffickers launch toward Europe in unseaworthy boats. International efforts to curtail the flow have focused on Mediterranean Sea crossings from Libya and other parts of North Africa.
Italian authorities say they are investigating the aid group for suspected criminal association and aiding illegal immigration.
Proactiva said the investigation stems from a tense high-seas standoff Thursday, when the Open Arms crew refused to relinquish the 218 people they had just picked up in international waters 70 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
Camps said as Libyan coast guard members approached, some migrants panicked, began screaming and jumped into the sea. The Libyan coast guard was “very aggressive” toward the Open Arms crew, he said, adding that his organization had “a legal duty” to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean.
Mission chief Anabel Montes, speaking by videoconference from the impounded Open Arms vessel, said armed Libyan coast guard members made death threats to the aid workers.
“We had never reached such an extreme situation like this one in which they were threatening us, saying that they were going to kill us,” Montes said.
She and the Open Arms’ captain are under investigation by Italian prosecutors. A third person, who hasn’t been identified, is also being investigated.
Italian authorities have not publicly explained why the Open Arms was impounded and its crew members were being investigated for on suspicion of aiding illegal immigration.
In an order to seize the rescue boat, Catania prosecutors alleged the crew ignored the Italian coast guard’s suggestion to request permission to dock in Malta, Italian news agency ANSA reported. The prosecutors said Proactiva and its aid workers seemed to have “the only purpose of reaching Italy,” ANSA said, quoting the order.
Law enforcement officials familiar with the case and speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it suggested that the probe was more complicated than that.
One possible legal issue was whether the humanitarian group was obliged to follow the Libyan coast guard vessel’s order if Libya had jurisdiction over rescues in that stretch of the sea.
The aid group spent three hours negotiating with the Libyans, Camps said. In the meantime, a vessel sent by Maltese authorities evacuated a critically ill 3-month-old baby and its mother.
Camps said the crew also contacted the Spanish and Italian navies, but received no assistance.
The Italian coast guard said it gave the Spanish boat permission to dock in Pozzallo on Friday, given the poor condition of the migrants and the worsening weather at sea.
Of the vessel’s 19 crew members, three are remaining in Italy to testify and the rest are heading back to Spain, Camps said.
Trying to stem the migration to its shores, Italy has supplied Libya with patrol boats and training. The European Union has backed the arrangement, but critics have said it enriches the unreliable Libyan coast guard and sends vulnerable migrants back into slave-like conditions in Libya.
Italy says it is working with U.N. authorities to ensure humane conditions in Libya for migrants. Many have reported being held as virtual prisoners, inadequate food, sexual assaults, beatings and other forms of torture while awaiting the chance to be smuggled out by boat.
In Brussels, EU Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told reporters: “We welcome the fact that the boat was able to be unloaded on Friday and that the migrants aboard received the treatment that they needed.”
“We are entirely aware that an Italian code of conduct exists aimed exactly at avoiding this kind of situation, and we call on all parties in the future to respect not just international law but also this Italian code of conduct,” she said.
Italy last year demanded that NGOs which operate rescue vessels sign on a code of conduct, but some humanitarian organizations declined to do so. Among their objections was a provision that would allow armed police on board rescue vessels.
A few others, including Proactiva Open Arms, did sign on and continued to operate migrant rescue missions at sea.
Some aid groups decided to suspend Mediterranean rescue missions because of what they described as an increase in hostility from the Italian-backed Libyan coast guard, including incidents in which the Libyans fired upon rescue boats.
The Italian government is coming under increasing public pressure at home to solve the migrant crisis, especially since EU partners have refused to take any significant number of migrants off Italy’s hands.
In Italy’s parliamentary election this month, the biggest voter-getters were political forces that railed against the government’s handling of the migrant crisis, including the populist 5-Star Movement, which campaigned by saying Italy should not remain “the refugee camp of Europe.”
Hatton reported from Lisbon. Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.