Italian authorities seized a charity’s ship on suspicion it helped illegal immigration by picking up migrants in the Mediterranean instead of letting Libya’s coastguard take them back to North Africa, the aid group said.
The Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms picked up 218 migrants in unsafe rubber boats in international waters off Libya’s coast last week, then took them to Sicily, the Italian coastguard said.
The charity ignored a message from the Libyan coastguard claiming responsibility for taking in migrants in that stretch of sea, the Italian coastguard added in a statement.
A Sicilian court impounded the boat on suspicion members of its crew violated international agreements on handling migrants and helped illegal migration into Europe, the charity said. There was no immediate comment from the court in Catania.
The case highlighted an increasingly tense stand-off between humanitarian groups seeking to save lives on the open seas and authorities across Europe trying to stop people making the dangerous crossing.
It comes at a sensitive time in Italy after voters backed parties that took a hard line on immigration and promised to deport hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants there.
“Finally an Italian prosecutor who blocks human trafficking,” Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant League said on Twitter, commenting on the court decision.
Proactiva released footage it said showed a young boy in his father’s lap on its ship after the rescue. “He would have never forgiven us had we returned him to hell,” Oscar Camps, Proactiva founder, said on Twitter.
The United Nations said migrants – hundreds of thousands of who remain in Libya – face dire conditions there. Those who make the crossing tell of being extorted, beaten, tortured, raped, starved and forced to work for no pay.
“In these situations, the priority is to save lives and that is what we did,” Camps old reporters in Barcelona.
“The challenges for rescuers are increasing. The tone of the debate is becoming more heated and we have seen a campaign to delegitimise NGOs working in the Med. Rescues have become criminal offences,” Camps said.
Proactiva lawyer, Rosa Emanuela Lo Faro, dismissed the charges, and told Reuters it did not know about any international agreement with Libya.
It is the second time Italy seized a rescue vessel. A German ship, the Iuventa, was impounded in August on accusations it aided illegal immigration. The group, Jugend Rettet, denied the charges and is seeking to get the ship back.
Italy agreed to hand over full responsibility for sea rescues across about a tenth of the Mediterranean to Libya’s coast guard by 2020.
The country has been on the frontline of boat migrant arrivals for the past four years, with more than 600,000 migrants reaching its shores.
The issue has become increasingly politicised across Europe. Both Hungary and Poland are refusing to take in EU quotas of migrants. German Chancellor Angel Merkel lost ground to anti-immigration parties in last year’s election, partly as a result of her decision to let in hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015.
Vincent Cochetel, the UN refugee agency’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean, said on Twitter he hoped the case did not mark a return of what he called “the campaign we saw in 2017 against NGOs involved in rescue-at-sea”.