Spain ignores pleas to not send rescued migrants back to Libya

The 12 Africans who were plucked from the sea by a Spanish fishing boat are terrified of being returned

The 12 rescued migrants in international waters on November 22. In the video, images from the Spanish fishing boat ‘Nuestra Madre Loreto.’Video: Lorenzo D’Agostino

The Spanish government is maintaining its decision to leave the fate of 12 migrants in the hands of Libyan authorities after the former were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea last Thursday by a Spanish fishing boat.

The Ombudsman has asked the Foreign Ministry to consider taking them in for humanitarian reasons, underscoring that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) does not consider Libya a safe harbor for migrants, even though it is the closest country to the spot where the group was rescued.  

This is not just about the risk to a ship, we’re talking about people

The office of the Spanish deputy prime minister, which is in charge of negotiations with Libyan authorities, claims that Libya, being the nearest port, is therefore also the safest. The law defines as a safe harbor any port where it is possible to dock, remain and depart from without putting the ship at risk.

“This is not just about the risk to a ship, we're talking about people. We're talking about pushback policies. These are people who have been rescued from the sea and they need to disembark as soon as possible at a safe harbor, and Libya is not a safe harbor,” says Ricardo Gatti, who heads the mission aboard the Open Arms, a rescue ship that has provided food and medical assistance to the fishing vessel Nuestra Madre de Loreto.

Carrying more than twice the people that it is built for, and covered in shrimping nets, the conditions aboard the ship are not very salubrious, said these volunteers. The fishermen have donated part of their own clothing to the migrants, but warn that even with the recent food delivery by the non-profit, they will be unable to hold on for more than six or seven days.

This is the latest case involving stranded migrants that nobody in the EU seems willing to take in. The Open Arms itself made headlines this past July when it took 60 migrants to Barcelona after they had been rejected by Italy and Malta. Before that, the Aquarius had brought more than 600 migrants to Spain after being similarly turned away in a case that attracted worldwide attention and underscored the problems with the EU’s immigration policy.

The Spanish government’s position represents a change in its migrant rescue policy in the Central Mediterranean, where so far this year more than 1,277 people have lost their lives, according to the International Migration Organization (IMO). Ever since the government of Pedro Sánchez decided to accept the Aquarius in June of this year, the Spanish executive has offered Spain as a safe harbor on more than three occasions, although less enthusiastically each time.

The lack of consensus over what to do with the rescued migrants in the face of the closed-port policies of Malta and Italy has led the Spanish government to seek negotiated solutions with its European partners. On August 15 Sánchez congratulated himself for leading a deal by which Malta accepted 141 migrants rescued by the Aquarius and six EU countries accepted to take them in.

Critical situation

Meanwhile, the situation aboard the Nuestra Madre de Loreto Is becoming critical. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister admits that the fishing ship, which is now dealing with a storm, faces a “serious risk” because there are twice as many people aboard as it is capable of carrying. The 24-meter-long ship is currently 100 nautical miles from Tripoli and 120 miles from Malta, waiting for its route to be decided by officials in a faraway office.

The rescue groups Proactiva Open Arms, Sea-Watch and Mediterránea have asked the Spanish government to demand from Italy and Malta that they open their ports to the ship. The regional government of Valencia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, has offered its own ports.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said on Tuesday that the situation aboard the ship “is not an emergency”

The crew aboard the fishing vessel is “very busy dealing with the storm and concerned about the migrants,” said Vicente Sampere, the second-in-command. They are not used to the sea and they’re very seasick, they keep throwing up. And we only have food and fuel left for six more days.”

The crew was not happy about statements made by Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, who said on Tuesday that the situation aboard the ship “is not an emergency” because “they’re still fishing and the people aboard are being taken care of.”

“We stopped fishing so as not to put the safety of these people at risk,” said the captain, Pascual Durá, who does not support turning the migrants over to Libya. Even though it would mean a huge financial loss, Durá said he is ready to take them to a Spanish port.

“I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of Libya”

Lorenzo D’Agostino

It was 8pm when Pascual Durá, the captain of the Nuestra Madre de Loreto, saw the lights of a small vessel that was being chased by a Libyan speedboat. "As soon as the boat came near us, one of the people jumped and grabbed onto our stern," recalls Vicente Sampere, the captain's right-hand man. "We stopped the boat because at night, with people at the stern, the propeller could have sucked them in."

Several more migrants jumped into the sea and swam toward the Spanish fishing vessel. Those who did not were taken aboard the Libyan speedboat. "There were still a few in the sea but the Libyans sped away. We kept contacting them on the radio to warn them that there were people in the water, but they did not even reply. And so all 12 of them ended up here."

The migrants hail from Somalia, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and Senegal. On November 24, volunteers from the non-profit Proactiva Open Arms went aboard and found that several migrants were still in a state of shock. They all had recent injuries, and several were suffering from scabies. One of the migrants said that he had lost his vision in one eye because of beatings at a Libyan detention center. Another migrant refused to talk and sat motionless, staring into space for the entire hour that the volunteers were aboard the ship.

Souleiman (an assumed name) said he was 16 years old and comes from Sudan. “I entered Libya when I was 12. The Libyans only want money; they put us in jail so we will pay them,” he said. “They put me in prison for one year and I was not able to shower even once. When I was on the boat and I saw the Libyan Coast Guard coming near I jumped in the water, because I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of Libya.”

The two Nigerians say that the migrant boat had 36 people aboard, six of them women. "We jumped in the water and the others were taken away by the Libyans. Libya is horrible. They make your work as a slave, they pressure you to get money, they torture you while they force you to call your family to make them pay a ransom."

English version by Susana Urra.

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