EU Parliament chief urges help for migrants on Spanish rescue ship ‘Open Arms’

David Sassoli has called on Jean-Claude Juncker to find a solution for the 121 people on board the boat, which has been denied entry by Italy and Malta

Footage from the ‘Open Arms’ rescue ship.Video: F. G. / M. M. / EFE
María Martín

The Spanish rescue ship Open Arms remains without a safe port, eight days after saving 121 migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea. On Thursday, the head of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, called on the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to help the migrants.

If Europe cannot protect migrants at sea, it will mean that it has lost its soul, as well as its heart EU Parliament chief David Sassoli

“The situation is serious and calls for immediate action,” he wrote in a letter, published in Italy’s leading newspaper La Reppublica. According to Sassoli, if Europe cannot protect migrants at sea, “it will mean that it has lost its soul, as well as its heart.”

Since June last year, authorities in Malta and Italy have banned rescue ships carrying migrants from docking at their ports unless a previous agreement existed to relocate the migrant to other countries.

The EU has been unable to make Italy and Malta change their position, nor has it come up with a reliable strategy for providing rescue boats with safe ports. In cases where a rescue ship is denied entry, like the Open Arms, the European Commission acts as a mediator between member states. The process is unpredictable, slow, and forces boats to spend up to three weeks at sea waiting for authorization to dock. What’s more, the process cannot begin unless requested by an EU member state.

The director of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms, Óscar Camps, formally appealed to Spain, France and Germany to activate negotiations on Thursday, but no action was taken. On Wednesday, acting Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), said Spain would not intervene in the case: “We don’t have to do it.”

The Spanish rescue ship is currently 29 nautical miles from the Lampedusa. Camps arrived on the Italian island on Thursday afternoon to keep track of developments, accompanied by Hollywood actor Richard Gere who has gone to support the cause. The head of the Barcelona-based charity has welcomed Sassoli’s letter, calling it “compelling.” “You have to admit he is right. If Europe cannot protect people who search for a better life it will mean Europe has lost its soul and its heart,” he added from the island.

The EU Commission is expected to reply to Sassoli on Friday morning, but late on Thursday, a spokesperson insisted that the executive branch cannot mediate unless a member state requests its intervention.

Escaping the terror of Libya


The 121 migrants aboard the Open Arms rescue ship are getting anxious to reach solid ground. "There is a lot of dizziness and several of them are vomiting," says Francisco Gentico, one of the volunteers on board. The ship is carrying nine-month twins and another 30 minors. There are also migrants with serious injuries.

The story of Safa, a Sudanese woman, who fled to Libya aged 12 with her two sisters and mother, has made a particularly strong impact on the Open Arms crew. In Libya, irregular immigration is a crime and trafficking and exploiting migrants is a lucrative business. For nine months, Safa was locked up with her family in a detention center, where they suffered all types of harassment, aggression and abuse. "Often, when they would come for her mother or her sisters, she [Safa] would sacrifice herself and asked that they rape her to protect them," says Gentico.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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