The Open Arms tugboat in the port of Naples | PHOTO: ANSA/Cesare Abbate
The Open Arms tugboat in the port of Naples | PHOTO: ANSA/Cesare Abbate

Italy's guarantor for the rights of detainees has requested clarifications from the government concerning the case of migrant rescue ship Open Arms, sparking a fiery response from the interior ministry. The Open Arms is currently stuck at sea, as both Malta and Italy have refused to let the ship enter its ports.

The Italian guarantor for the rights of detainees has written a letter to coast guards commander Giovanni Pettorino asking for clarifications regarding the situation of migrant rescue ship Open Arms, at the request of Proactiva Open Arms – the Spanish NGO operating the boat. 

The vessel is stranded in the Mediterranean as it awaits to be assigned a port to disembark the more than 150 migrants onboard. 

"Another impasse for a ship that carried out a rescue operation at sea concerning the choice of the port of landing," the guarantor wrote in the letter. "The impasse has a significant impact on the fundamental rights of the people who have been rescued, who cannot land and therefore don't have freedom of movement and are exposed to the risk of being treated in a way that goes against the sense of humanity and dignity of those people." 

Italy responsible for Open Arms? 

In the letter, the guarantor said that the EU and in particular Spain, the vessel's flag state, and Malta, which closed its ports to the boat, have a "high" responsibility for the situation. Nevertheless, it stressed that "the situation can and must be seen" as Italy's responsibility after it refused the Open Arms access to its national waters. 

The watchdog said that "the rescued migrants onboard must be recognized as having all the rights and guarantees of those people over which Italy has jurisdiction." Proof of this, the guarantor said, was the fact that Italian coast guards have evacuated three women, including one who is pregnant. This move implied that Italy was responsible for the people onboard, it said. 

'Principle of non-refoulement violated', guarantor 

The guarantor also said that there was a risk that Italy could violate the principle of non-refoulement and the ban on collective expulsions. Non-refoulement means that refugees can't be returned to a country where they are in danger. Countries are also supposed to look at each asylum seeker's case individually - this means they are not allowed to just expulse a group without examining at each person's asylum case. 

There is a ''strong risk'' that migrants will have to go back to their point of departure, Libya, after Italy and Malta closed their ports, the watchdog wrote. Many experts believe that Libya is not safe for migrants and refugees; there are frequent reports of human right abuses in the war-torn state. 

"Refusing entry can be seen as an action of collective refoulement of the rescued people if it is exercised - as in this case - without a preventive examination of individual cases," the guarantor argued. 

Response from the interior ministry

The guarantor's request sparked the fiery reaction of the interior ministry. "The guarantor of detainees needs to justify its existence and its salary paid by the state," said ministry sources. The sources added that the request for clarifications was "surprising" because the watchdog went "beyond its authority."


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