Spain prevents migrant rescue vessel from setting sail

Spain has refused to allow the NGO migrant rescue vessel Open Arms from setting sail after the Madrid government said it had not followed international regulations

Open Arms vessel docked in Valletta back in 2017
Open Arms vessel docked in Valletta back in 2017

The Spanish NGO vessel Open Arms was blocked by the Spanish government from setting sail with the latter accusing the rescue organisation of failing to adhere to international regulations.

On their Twitter page, Proactiva Open Arms, the NGO responsible for the vessel said NGOs were not allowed to protect lives despite States failing to fulfil their rescue obligations at sea. "They stop the witnesses to hide death without shame," the NGO said.

Open Arms was refused entry by Italy and Malta in July last year after it rescued 59 migrants off Libya.

"Preventing us from saving lives is irresponsible and cruel. Cowardly politicians are putting in place a counter for the dead," Proactiva Open Arms founder Oscar Camps said in a separate tweet.

Like Sea-Watch, Open Arms operates in the sea between Libya and southern Europe and takes migrants who are encountering difficulties during their journeys at sea.

The NGO's rescue vessel had docked in Spain on 28 December, carrying 311, mainly African migrants, after it was denied entry in both Italy and Malta.

After a routine stock-up with provisions in Barcelona, the ship had been due to set sail again on 8 January but Barcelona's Port Authority prohibited it from leaving.

In a statement, Spain's public works ministry, which controls the Port Authority, said Open Arms "fails to comply with several precepts of international regulations governing rescues at sea."

It added that the ship operates off the Libyan coast, a region where Spain does not have any jurisdiction in terms of maritime rescue.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had previously been very generous in allowing boats chartered by aid groups to dock in Spain as hundreds of migrants disembark.

Intermittently, the Spanish government did act against NGO vessels, namely the Aquarius last August and now, the Open Arms.

Spain became Europe's main entry point for migrants last year, overtaking Greece and Italy, which have taken measures to prevent rescued migrants from landing in their ports.

More than 55,000 migrants arrived in Spain by sea in 2018, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.