NGOs hit back in Sea Watch row

Left to right: Claudio Martello (Antigone), Marco Bertotto (Medici Senza Frontiere), Riccardo Noury (Tavolo Asilo), Giorgia Linardi (Sea Watch), Alessandro Metz (Mediterranea), Filippo Miraglia, (Tavolo Asilo), Arturo Salerni (Open Arms)

ROME – Five different Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) attended Wednesday a conference to show their support for Sea Watch, the German migrant-rescue NGO at the centre of a legal dispute with the Italian government. Captain Carola Rackete defied government orders to dock in Lampedusa, but was cleared Tuesday of all initial charges laid against her.

 Sea Watch was excluded Wednesday from a hearing of the Constitutional Affairs and Justice committee on the government’s so-called “security decree” after the League protested. In solidarity, the NGOs organised a collective press conference at the Foreign Press Association to hit back at the government.

 In attendance were representatives from Sea Watch, Tavolo Nazionale Asilo, Doctors Without Borders, Open Arms, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Antigone.

 Their collective message was emphatic: strongly critical both of the Italian government’s stance which has seen Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini lead resistance to the boat’s docking, and its decision to exclude Sea Watch from the hearing, they insisted on the legal requirement to help people at sea, no matter their status.

 It was, they said, not an option to send the migrants on board back to Libya, or to Tunisia, since these were not safe ports and would render Italy complicit in whatever happened to the migrants there. This was recognised by the investigating judge in Rackete’s first hearing. The NGO spokespeople praised Rackete for taking responsibility in a way that the Italian government had failed to do.

 Initially Rackete was accused of endangering the lives of law enforcement officials as she forced her way into Lampedusa harbour, a manoeuvre the financial police had attempted to block. But a preliminary judge Tuesday ordered all pending charges to be dropped, finding that she had not acted illegally in ignoring a port entry ban and ramming a police boat, bringing an end to her four days of house arrest.

 Salvini vented his frustration, saying he had prepared an expulsion order for Rackete, 31, vowing "We will send her back to Germany.” However, the order cannot be carried out until Rackete is next questioned on charges of aiding illegal immigration. This will happen on July 9. Until that time, Rackete is free to do as she pleases, whether that be to remain in Italy or to return to Germany.

 The spokeswoman for Sea Watch, Giorgia Linardi, said that Ms Rackete was well and recovering. She said she was still in Italy, but wouldn’t give a commitment on what Rackete, 31, would do in the next few days. The migrants are being processed, as is normal, and it is not yet finalised where they will end up. Six European countries have offered to take them in (France, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Luxembourg).

 “I have no words,” Salvini wrote earlier in a post on Facebook. “What do you need to do to end up in jail in Italy? I am ashamed that in this country they allow a criminal to come from abroad, to disobey the laws and put the lives of soldiers who are doing their jobs in danger.”

 Sea Watch vowed Tuesday that it will resume its rescue operations, using a new ship if necessary, since the one skippered by Rackete was impounded by the Italian coastguard. This was a sentiment echoed by the NGOs at the conference, who pointed to a lack of alternative since no one else now provides help to migrants in the Mediterranean.

 Linardi, of Sea Watch, thanked the other organisations for their support as well as the politicians in Rome and Lampedusa. Sveral MEPs in the new European Parliament in Strasbourg brought signs demanding the release of Rackete, such as “Free Carola” and “Rescue is not a crime.”