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Politicians ‘attacking’ NGOs must be held accountable – Sakharov Prize finalists

NGOs migrant rescue vessels
Sakharov Prize finalists speak to MEPs on challenges faced by NGOs operating migrant rescue vessels. Photo: EP.

NGOs operating migrant rescue vessels in the Mediterranean told EU parliamentarians that the criminalisation of humanitarian activities must end, saying their efforts were saving lives.

In a meeting with MEPs from the Civil Liberties and Foreign Affairs Committee (LIBE), they said politicians and the media were “deliberately lying and attacking” .

Sakharov Prize finalists including Solidarity at Sea, Sea Eye, Seebrucke Germany, Open Arms, Medecins sans Frontieres and Migrant Offshore Aid Station discussed with MEPs the challenges they face in carrying out their work in the Mediterranean.

Sea Watch representative Georgia Linard called for an end to the criminalisation of humanitarian activities undertaken by NGOs. She added that politicians and journalists should be held accountable for their actions and stopped from targeting them with the intention of negatively altering public opinion on the important role they perform.

Solidarity at Sea spokesperson Pia Klemp explained how the strategic criminalisation of rescue missions impairs the freedom of society, undermining Europe’s “alleged” democratic values.

Her sentiments were then echoed by Ricardo Gatti from Open Arms said it was possible to avoid migrant deaths at sea, and that rescue should be a priority: “After that, we can speak about how to manage the people at once in a safe place, which is Europe. But meanwhile, we can not avoid our duty to rescue them”.

Libya is currently not considered as a safe country and reports of torture, arbitrary detention, and abuse of refugees and migrants are widespread. A number of international human rights organisations have spoken out on the matter, stating that any policy to return migrants to the country, constitutes abuse.

Immigration law expert at Queen Mary University, Violeta Moreno-Lax then noted that the targeting of NGO ships that are performing rescue operations goes against “the heart and convention of international law”.

Around 2,300 people died crossing the Mediterranean Sea last year (2018), according to the International Organisation for Migration. UNHCR estimates that an average of six deaths daily, according to a report published last February.

NGOs migrant rescue EP

Maltese authorities have recently come under fire for stopping migrant sea rescue ships from entering or leaving the country’s waters. Sea Watch, a Dutch-flagged ship was impounded for months due to alleged issues with the vessels’ paperwork. The NGO maintained there were no issues with the paperwork and that the impounding of the vessel was part of a political game.

The government were also criticised for grounding the sea plane ‘Moonbird’ in September to prevent its participation in rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Also belonging to Sea Watch, the NGO accused the government of failing to provide any legal justification for its grounding, resulting in them taking legal action against the authorities.

Last January, Joseph Muscat also commented on the level of commitment that the Libyan authorities had shown in tackling the migration issue, adding that “we need to allow the LIbyan coastguard to do its job”. He also said that it was not the job of NGOs to “decide rules for themselves”.

Linardi contradicted his claims in her address, saying that;  “people are not safe in Libya, many we rescue claim to prefer death than returning there”. According to international law, the disembarkation of those rescued must take place at a safe location, meaning that country’s such as Libya cannot be an option. 

In July, the Captain of MV Lifeline Claus- Peter Reisch was charged with entering Malta with an unlicensed vessel after the vessel docked and disembarked 234 migrants. The boat had been given the ‘ok’ to enter Maltese waters after eight EU states agreed to ‘share’ immigrants that had been left stranded between Malta and Libya for six days.

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