The Open Arms rescue vessel in San Roque Port in Algeciras, southern Spain | PHOTO/ARCHIVE/EPA/A.CARRASCO RAGE
The Open Arms rescue vessel in San Roque Port in Algeciras, southern Spain | PHOTO/ARCHIVE/EPA/A.CARRASCO RAGE

Spanish authorities on Monday rescued nearly 500 people trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. But they continue to block the Spanish NGO ship Open Arms from carrying out search and rescue work.

The Spanish migrant rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms says the Port Authority in Barcelona has denied it permission to set sail in the Mediterranean. The group's ship, the Open Arms, was due to sail on January 8, but has been prevented from leaving because it violated maritime regulations "to leave those rescued at sea at the nearest port," according to a statement from Spanish authorities.

On its most recent mission in December, the Open Arms brought around 300 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya to a port in southern Spain. Spain's merchant navy said that in crossing the Mediterranean for several days to bring the migrants to land, the aid group had jeopardized "the security of the boat, its crew and the people rescued." Proactiva Open Arms argues that its boat only came to Spain because it had been turned away by both Malta and Italy.

The Spanish charity says its ship has rescued 5,619 people in the Mediterranean Sea since July 2017. "The time that Open Arms is blocked in the port will not be measured in days, it will be counted in deaths," its president, Oscar Camps, tweeted.

Spain 'will not become a refuge'

Following his election in June, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez allowed the NGO ship Aquarius and several other migrant rescue boats to dock after they had been rejected by other countries. However, according to the Spanish daily El Pais, Spanish ministers have since insisted that accepting the Aquarius was an exceptional move, and that "Spain would not become a refuge for all the rejected vessels from Italy." In August, the country refused to allow the Aquarius, this time carrying 141 rescued migrants, to dock.

Spain last year became Europe's main entry point for migrants, overtaking Greece and Italy, which have taken steps to prevent migrants rescued at sea from landing in their ports. The European Union border agency Frontex says that there were about 57,000 unauthorized crossings to Spain in 2018 – twice as many as in the previous year – while migrant arrivals for Europe overall reached a five-year low.


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