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Spanish fireman faces 20 years in prison for rescuing migrants at sea

Italian authorities have accused Miguel Roldán of aiding human traffickers after he helped save thousands of people from drowning in the Mediterranean

Firefighter Miguel Roldán.
Firefighter Miguel Roldán.

It is June 2017, and firefighter Miguel Roldán has been working for 18 hours on a migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea. A phone call warns him that another migrant boat is sinking. It is past 10pm and completely dark. He sets out with two of his colleagues in a small boat to find the drowning migrants. They sail 200 meters, turn off the boat’s engines and follow the screams for help.

They find the migrants within 10 minutes, but Rome’s Search and Rescue Control Center deny the team permission to rescue them. They are in Libyan waters and have to negotiate with the North African country. They are granted permission to carry out a rescue operation 15 minutes later. But a quarter of an hour is an eternity for migrants struggling to stay alive.

It’s unbelievable. We respect the rules so much that we’ve watched people die because of bureaucracy

Miguel Roldán, 32, firefighter

“We could only save half of them, many people drowned,” remembers Roldán, a 32-year-old firefighter from the southern city of Málaga, who has been part of the underwater unit of the Seville City Hall Fire Department since 2013. His act of solidarity that day, as well as his help on other rescue missions in the summer of 2017, could land him behind bars for 20 years for allegedly aiding illegal immigration and working with human traffickers.

Roldán had previous experience on rescue missions in the Aegean Sea, next to the Greek island of Lesbos, and decided to spend 20 days of his vacation in June 2017 aboard Iuventa, an old fishing vessel that was converted into a rescue ship by the German NGO Jugend Rettet. The crew departed from La Valeta port in Malta and sailed until they were 17 nautical miles from the coast of Libya in international waters. In those 20 days, the team rescued 5,000 people.

When Roldán returned to Seville, the crew continued to carry out rescue missions in the central Mediterranean migration route, one of the most-popular ways to enter Europe, saving around 14,000 people in the following weeks. But the rescue missions were cut short on August 2 when Italian authorities seized the Iuventa and launched an investigation into the crew for “facilitating illegal immigration.” As a result of the investigation, a judge in the Sicilian city of Trapani, accused the entire crew – seven Germans, two Scots and Roldán – of helping human traffickers.

Even just one minute spent in jail for saving lives would be too much

Firefighter Miguel Roldán

“It’s unbelievable. We respect the rules so much that we’ve watched people die because of bureaucracy. The accusation is a huge slap in the face,” says Roldán. According to the International Organization for Migration (OIM), 3,116 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017, with the majority – 2,832 people – drowning on the central Mediterranean route where Roldán was working as a volunteer.

“Since the beginning of the operation, we’ve cooperated directly and completely with the Italian authorities,” says Sascha Girke, one of the founders of Jugend Rettet and the leader of the 2017 mission that Roldán took part in. According to Girke, the main objective of Iuventa is to go to areas where migrants are in danger of drowning – they were between 200 or 300 kilometers off the island of Lampedusa and Malta – and actively search and rescue them. Once rescued, the migrants are transferred to ships belonging to non-profit organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children.

Roldán’s situation is not unique. In 2018, three firefighters from Seville were facing up to 10 years in prison for “attempting to smuggle people” as volunteers for Proem-Aid (Professional Emergency Aid), a Spanish association that aims to save migrants drowning at sea. The three men were acquitted but Roldán may not be so lucky, says Oino Reina, the president of Proem-Aid.

Spanish firefighters (l-r) Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and José Enrique Rodríguez were acquitted of attempting to smuggle people into the EU in 2018.
Spanish firefighters (l-r) Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and José Enrique Rodríguez were acquitted of attempting to smuggle people into the EU in 2018. EFE

“The main difference between the cases is that we were dealing with the Greek justice system, but [Roldán] is being accused by Italy, a country that has a policy of harassing and attacking NGOs, especially since Matteo Salvini became the interior minister,” explains Reina.

According to information provided by Jugend Rettet, the investigation phase of the case will end in the summer, and if there is to be a trial, it will begin at the end of the year. Roldán, however, trusts that this will not happen. “Even just one minute spent in jail for saving lives would be too much.”

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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