Barcelona’s harbour master, managed by the Spanish government, last week denied permission for the Open Arms vessel of the Proactiva Open Arms NGO from leaving port to begin a new search and rescue mission in Libyan waters. The NGO has lodged an official complaint, but in the meantime the vessel is only allowed to operate in Spanish waters. 

The harbour master, who comes under the authority of Spain’s development ministry, argues that permission to leave was denied because the vessel is not certified to carry a large number of people on board.

“Preventing us from saving lives is irresponsible and cruel. Cowardly politicians have set the death toll counter going” said the head of Proactiva Open Arms, Òscar Camps, on Twitter.

Safe harbours

The Catalan foreign affairs minister, Alfred Bosch, also commented on the issue, regretting that the development ministry had taken the decision to deny permission for the vessel to leave port.

In a tweet, Bosch said “the work of those who save lives must not be prevented” and he called for allocating “safe harbours” in response to the humanitarian crisis taking place in the Mediterranean.

The government recently offered haven to 49 refugees  and migrants who had spent two weeks stranded at sea after the Italian and Maltese authorities refused to take them in. In the end, eight European states accepted the migrants, although Spain was not among them.

Clashes with coast guards

Since 2017, Proactiva Open Arms has rescued hundreds of migrants stranded in the Mediterranean, but has on more than one occasion run afoul of various coast guard authorities in the area, from such states as Libya, Malta and Italy.

In March 2018, the Open Arms was impounded by the Italian authorities and its captain accused of aiding human trafficking. While the vessel was allowed to leave the port of Pozzallo in Sicily a month later, the human trafficking investigations are ongoing.

Controversy and recognition

Proactiva Open Arms has become a controversial player in the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Yet, the NGO has also received positive recognition, such as the European Citizen’s Prize from the European Parliament in 2016, while Camps was named Catalan of the Year in 2015.

Currently, Open Arms is the only one of the NGO’s three vessels in operation. The 37-meter-long emergency tow vessel was previously used by Spain’s maritime safety agency, Salvamento Marítimo, and was later donated to the NGO.