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Spain sending Navy ship to collect 100 migrants still on board the ‘Open Arms’

Conditions on the NGO rescue vessel have been worsening, with several immigrants jumping overboard in a bid to swim the 800 meters to the Italian island of Lampedusa

Migrants jump from the ‘Open Arms’ into the sea.
Madrid / Lampedusa

The Spanish government has decided that it will today send one of its Navy ships to collect the hundred or so migrants who are currently on board the NGO rescue ship Open Arms, in order to take them to Spain. The vessel has been at sea for 19 days, and, after rescuing 150 or so migrants, has now been moored off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa since Friday.

They cannot ask us to act as taxis and take the migrants to a Spanish port when we are 800 meters away from a safe port

Óscar Camps, Proactiva Open Arms founder

“After analyzing a number of different options, the Spanish government, in accordance with the logistic recommendations of the Navy, believes that this one is the most appropriate and will allow for the resolution this week of the humanitarian emergency on board,” the acting Socialist Party administration announced via a statement on Tuesday afternoon.

The Navy ship Audaz will set sail at 5pm from the Rota naval base in Cádiz, southwestern Spain, once preparations have been made. Medical staff and psychologists will also be on board to treat the migrants as they are brought to Spain. The journey to the Italian island will take three days, and the government is proposing that the migrants not only board the Navy vessel, but also that it accompany the Open Arms “to the port of Palma,” on the Balearic Island of Mallorca.

Conditions on the Open Arms have continued to deteriorate, with eight migrants requiring an urgent medical evacuation on Monday night. “Whoever cannot see that the situation on board is unsustainable is incapable of feeling another person’s pain,” the NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which runs the ship, stated after the evacuation, which included one accompanying migrant.

The situation worsened on Tuesday, after one of the migrants, a Syrian man, jumped over the side of the boat and was rescued by the Italian Coast Guard, which took him to shore where he was collected by an ambulance.

Several hours later, nine more of the migrants followed his example, and earlier this afternoon another five did the same. All of them were rescued by the Coast Guard or by speedboats from the Open Arms. Five of them were taken to the shore.

Proactiva Open Arms founder Óscar Camps.
Proactiva Open Arms founder Óscar Camps. REUTERS

“More people have jumped into the water from the Open Arms to try to swim to Lampedusa,” the NGO reported. “The situation on the vessel is critical.”

Today’s incidents were repeats of those seen on Sunday morning, when four migrants jumped ship and tried to swim to the coast.

Italy has refused to allow the rescue ship to dock at its ports, even though six European countries, including Spain, had offered to take in the rescued migrants.

On Sunday, Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), offered the Open Arms the southern port of Algeciras in Cádiz, and Mahón in Menorca in the Balearic Islands. But Proactiva Open Arms refused the offer, arguing it was “impossible” to attempt the four- to six-day journey given the conditions on board.

Whoever cannot see that the situation on board is unsustainable is incapable of feeling another person’s pain

Proactiva Open Arms

Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, had said Italy would transport the migrants to a Spanish port on Coast Guard ships, if Spain refused to allow the Open Arms to sail under the Spanish flag, meaning it would technically be immobilized until it found another flag to fly under.

“We have been waiting for a solution for 18 days, and now we find out that the Spanish and Italian governments have reached an agreement, telling us it is better to go to Spain, that Spain offers its ports and the Italian Coast Guard its ships to escort us. I find it surreal,” Óscar Camps, the founder of the Barcelona-based NGO, told EL PAÍS in Lampedusa on Tuesday morning, before news broke that the Spanish Navy would be sending a vessel.

Seven months ago, the Spanish government banned the NGO Proactiva Open Arms from completing rescue missions in the central Mediterranean Sea, on the basis that the Open Arms was not equipped to carry out long journeys.

“Now they are asking us to do the opposite,” argued Camps. “That we ignore the office that banned us from transporting people and go to Spain [...] without secure conditions or health guarantees. And violating [the migrants’] rights, because they would be going in overcrowded conditions.

“We are a very small organization,” he added. “They cannot ask us to act as taxis and take [the migrants] to a Spanish port when we are 800 meters away from a safe port. Especially since Spain has offered a guarantee to Italy that it would take responsibility for them.”

As an alternative solution, Camps suggested that the migrants be allowed to dock in Lampedusa, where they would stay temporarily, until a plane could transport them to Spain, “which would cost a lot less than a sea transfer.”

But the government’s delegate in Catalonia, Teresa Cunillera, had maintained that “the ball is not in the government’s court.” In an interview with Radio Catalunya, she said: “Spain offered its ports 36 hours ago and the ship hasn’t moved.”

Meanwhile, Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), said on Tuesday that Sánchez’s handling of the situation would encourage more irregular immigration. “Our concern is that, with the poor handling of the Open Arms crisis, mafias will see Spain as a country that receives any type of ship, where unfortunate migrants are exploited by mafias, risking their lives trying to improve their conditions,” he said.

María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop, a member of the European Parliament for the anti-austerity party Podemos, has also criticized the government for responding “too late” to the crisis.

English version by Melissa Kitson and Simon Hunter.

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