A boat captain is facing 20 years in prison for rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean

The Sea-Watch 3, once operated by Pia Klemp.
The Sea-Watch 3, once operated by Pia Klemp.
Image: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi
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A petition demanding that Italy drop criminal charges against a boat captain who has rescued hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean has gathered more than 110,000 signatures.

Prosecuting Pia Klemp, a member of the independent search-and-rescue organization Sea-Watch, would be a “surrender of humanity in Europe,” says the petition launched last month.

Italy accuses Klemp, who has helped migrants complete the dangerous journey between Africa and Europe, with aiding illegal migration. She says she was simply following the law of the sea, which demands that ships rescue anyone in distress.

Her trial is expected to begin soon. The court will address whether she was simply a humanitarian worker or if she “collaborated” with the human traffickers that operate from Libya, and therefore had “complicity” (link in Italian) with illegal activity.

Klemp could get up to 20 years in prison, but she plans to fight a conviction and take her case to the European Court of Human Rights. The activist said she’s frustrated with the idea of spending hundreds of thousands of euros with a “show trial,” when that money could be better spent with rescue operations. She also said that the worst has already happened, as rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been successfully criminalized.

Italy’s new crackdown

The case against Klemp is part of a crackdown on humanitarian organizations operating in the Mediterranean. Last year, soon after gaining power, Italy’s far-right anti-migrant governing coalition closed the country’s ports to rescue vessels. Since then, boats have been left stranded at sea 18 times, sometimes for weeks. And after many threats of prosecution from Italy, the number of rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean has dropped from about 10 to just the one operated by Sea-Watch.

The EU has recently ended search-and-rescue missions in the region, in part due to pressure from Italy. The EU operation, launched in 2015 at the peak of the migrant crisis, saved tens of thousands of migrants. The EU has outsourced its rescue work to the Libyan coast guard, which activists and researchers say is unprepared, and often unwilling, to save migrants.

This week, Italy intensified the pressure on NGOs, passing a decree that allows it to apply fines of up to €50,000 ($56,000) on humanitarian organizations caught operating in Italian waters or trying to reach Italian ports. Italy also threatened to use the new rule to fine Sea-Watch.

The UN’s refugee agency objected, saying sea rescue is a “long-standing humanitarian imperative” and an obligation under international law. “No vessel or shipmaster should be at risk of a fine for coming to the aid of boats in distress and where loss of life may be imminent,” the agency said.

Lethal consequences

Italy’s governing coalition, comprised of the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right, anti-migrant League Party, argues that NGOs encourage migrants to try the dangerous crossing, because potential rescues increase their chances of reaching Europe. Luigi di Maio, the Five Star leader, has said rescue boats take migrants aboard even when they’re not in distress, calling them “taxis” (link in Italian). Matteo Salvini, leader of the League Party and the main anti-migrant voice in Italy, called the organizations a “human trafficking mafia.” Even EU leaders have criticized the NGOs.

Yet an analysis of Italy’s Coast Guard data by Matteo Villa, a researcher with the Institute for International Political Studies, found no statistical relationship between the number of rescue boats in the Mediterranean and the number of migrant boats trying to cross (link in Italian).

In one sense, Europe’s strategies are working. There has been a decrease in the number of migrants arriving in Italy and dying in the Mediterranean. But the policies have had lethal consequences: The proportion of migrants dying has increased. For the fewer number of people trying the cross, the sea has become more dangerous.

With the EU’s withdrawal and the intensification of violence in Libya, the missions by the humanitarian organization will  become more crucial in coming months, as the weather improves and crossings increase.