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‘Europe will continue with its border control policies, and we will continue fighting for human rights’

INIGO MIJANGOS tells Ben Cowles how his charity's ship, the Aita Mari, was seized in Italy after saving the lives of 47 refugees

“WE WERE on our way back from Syracuse to Spain when we received a message from Malta of some boats adrift to the south,” Inigo Mijangos, chairman of the Basque refugee charity Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH) tells me.

“There was no rescue crew or medical team on board the Aita Mari at the time because we were in transit,” he says describing how his charity’s humanitarian ship was seized in Italy last month.  

“We told Malta RCC [Rescue Coordination Centre] that all we could do was find the boats and then wait for their instructions. And that is what we did.”

This all happened over Easter.

As Europe was locked down due to their governments’ tardy handling of the coronavirus pandemic, around 260 refugees fled the humanitarian disaster in Libya in four boats across the Mediterranean.

One of those boats sank. Presumably no-one survived.

Malta’s government organised the illegal return of one boat to Libya (which cost the lives of 12 people) and forced another to continue its dangerous journey to Italy.

The Aita Mari found the fourth boat, carrying 47 people who had already been at sea for four days.

“When we found the boat,” Mijangos says, “Malta RCC told us to give the people on the boat some water, food and life jackets.

“They had been on that boat for a long time and were very weak. Some of them were unconscious. But they woke up a little bit when they ate and drank something.

“We told Malta RCC that we were unable to provide medical attention. But they refused to send any ships.

“They told us they would send us medical supplies by helicopter. We told them that that was not possible due to the structure of the Aita Mari. We’ve tried it in the past and it didn’t work.  It is not safe at all.

“But they insisted. They came with their helicopter and realised it was not possible to do any kind of manoeuvring, and so they left.

“Later Malta asked us to take some people on board the Aita Mari and leave the rest on their boat. We told them that was not possible.

“‘If we try to do that’, we told Malta, ‘then everyone is going to jump into the water, and we’re going to have a very difficult situation’.

“We said: ‘If we have to bring people on board then we have to take everybody. If not, you need to send a boat to pick up these people and put them in a place of safety.’

“They said: ‘The ports are closed’.

“At the end of the day, the waves were increasing and the weather conditions were worsening. Their boat was taking on water, and we thought it was about to collapse.

“The official answer from Malta when we told them this was: ‘If you think the people’s lives are immediately at risk, you should embark them’. And so we did.

“The whole process was co-ordinated by Malta’s RCC. The law says that if an RCC co-ordinates a rescue, they must continue with that until the rescued are disembarked on land.

“Malta RCC told us: ‘We don't have a port of safety in Malta. We cannot do anything. Go closer to another country that is willing to support you’.

“And with this cynical message, Malta’s participation in the rescue was finished.”

The Aita Mari is only a small ship. It was never meant to be used for refugee rescues in the central Mediterranean.

However, the International Law of the Sea requires vessels to rescue or provide assistance to people in distress at sea. A rescue is only considered complete when the rescued reach dry land.

When the Aita Mari received the message from Malta RCC, it was obliged under this law to assist with the rescue. Since no-one else was there, and the refugees’ boat looked unsafe, the ship had no choice but to bring them onboard despite the lack of space.

A floating dental clinic

Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH) was founded in 2015 as the so-called “refugee crisis” began.

“There was an influx of people to Greece’s Aegean islands, fleeing from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mijangos says.  

“Many of us were involved with the Red Cross in Spain. We saw what was happening in Greece and decided to organise ourselves to go there.

“At the time we thought that instead of just staying there for a month or so, we should raise funds to create a platform, a more permanent structure.”

Initially SMH sent medical teams to the refugee camps on some of the smaller Greek islands.

In 2017, SMH began providing volunteers and assisting other NGO refugee rescuers (like the German organisations Mission Lifeline and Sea Watch) in the central Mediterranean.

A year later, the charity had raised enough funds to buy its own ship, the Aita Mari.

The Aita Mari’s purpose was to act as a kind of floating dental clinic, providing a health service for the people stuck in the migrant camps on the smaller Greek islands like Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos where, Mijangos says, nobody was taking care of them.

“The kinds of food and the kinds of diet that the people have in the camps is a big problem. Their teeth are destroyed. They often have infections and a lot of pain.”

However, the Spanish authorities were so determined to prevent the Aita Mari from setting sail, it took SMH a year of legal wrangling before they could launch their maiden voyage.

“In the beginning, everything was fine with the Spanish inspection services. We harboured in Pasaia” (northern Spain/Basque country).

“The port in Pasaia has always been very fair and helpful to us. But when things get raised to the government level, it gets more complicated.

“The Spanish government claims that it is facing the influx of migrants from Morocco alone, without any help from, or discussions about relocations with, the European Union.

“So the government didn’t want us to be out rescuing people in the central Mediterranean and bringing them back to Spain.

“They used lots of legal tricks to keep us in port. The inspectors would say: ‘You don’t have the proper ventilation in your cabins, so we cannot give you the clearance to leave’.

“Or they would say that our purpose was to carry out rescues and because we didn’t have a disembarkation agreement with Malta or Italy we couldn’t leave.

“We kept saying the Aita Mari is not a rescue ship but a humanitarian ship.

“When we finally got the clearance in April 2019, we sailed to Greece. And in one month, our dentist had over 700 appointments. So you see, there are a lot of people there that need our service.”

Blockaded by Europe

After leaving Maltese waters with the 47 refugees on board back at Easter, the Aita Mari headed towards Italy. It was forced to wait another six days before the authorities took care of the refugees.

The Aita Mari was then placed in a 14-day quarantine off the coast of Sicily. Once that was over, the ship sailed into Palermo and on May 7 the Italian port authorities seized the ship — a day after detaining the Alan Kurdi, a refugee rescue ship operated by German NGO Sea Eye.

“The inspectors came directly from Rome with a list of things to check on the ship. It was an inspection of more than eight or nine hours straight,” Mijangos says.

“It's clear their intention was to stop the ship for political reasons.

“I have here a list of 51 points they say is wrong with the ship. Many of them are repeated and many of them are not applicable to our ship because of its size and weight.

“They even took a small packet of expired jam from our fridge and marked it down as one of the deficiencies.

“We have a professional chef on board. He is always cleaning everything. Everyone’s shirts are stained with bleach because of this. This man, for sure, has everything right.

“They didn’t find a single fuse that wasn’t working on the ship. All the alarms and everything else was fine.”

The Aita Mari is not the only humanitarian or civil refugee rescue ship to face such treatment from European states.

The Sea Watch 3, Alan Kurdi, Mare Junio, Lifeline, Ocean Viking, Mare Liberum, Open Arms, Aquarius, Iuventa and more have all at some point faced similar legal tricks to stop them from bringing refugees into Europe.

Mijangos believes Italy is trying to put pressure on European governments to stop registering these ships with their flags — much as a car cannot drive without a licence plate or insurance, a ship cannot enter a port without a country’s flag.

“Questions will be asked why a government [Spain in the Aita Mari’s case] allowed a ship with so many deficiencies to sail.

“Of course, the deficiencies in our case are not true. But if two or more Spanish-flagged ships fail such inspections in a year, then their certification process could be downgraded.

“The Netherlands was very supportive of the civil fleet once. The Finnish also. But they have now refused to register any civil fleet ships with their flags because of similar threats.

“I’m pretty sure that in the next month or so, we’re going to see all the flag states in Europe introduce new laws and regulations for NGO ships that are going to be impossible for us to fulfil.”

Rebelling against fortress Europe

In the month since the Italian port authorities seized the Aita Mari, the numbers of people attempting to reach Europe across the world’s deadliest border has not decreased.

Yet Italy, Malta and the European Union’s new naval mission (Operation Irini) have dodged their responsibilities to save refugee lives in the Mediterranean.

As I am writing this, the Sea Watch 3 is heading back to the Libyan search and rescue zone. It will be the first dedicated rescue mission in the area for six weeks.

“This is a fight. Europe will continue its border control policies, and we will continue fighting for human rights.

“If we cannot continue with the Aita Mari, we will continue to support the bigger ships in the civil fleet, like the Ocean Viking and Sea Watch 3, with finances, with volunteers, by raising awareness.

“I don’t know about the future. For sure, it is not going to be easy for us. But the most important thing to remember is that it is not going to be easy for the people who are fleeing from war, misery, danger and terrible conditions in their own countries.

“For us it will be a little more difficult but it’s easy, really. I’m at home. I have no problems. Italy, Malta, Greece and the EU are consuming my energy but that’s it.

“But for the refugees, the migrants, it means the difference between life and death. The difference between suffering a lot in Libya or Eritrea or Yemen, or even in Bangladesh.  

“The solution here is clear. We have to make legal pathways for these people. It is not so difficult to do. It was done in the past. And it is done when it is in the interest of capital.

“It’s just the political will that is lacking. And that is what we have to explain to society.

“That is your job, to tell the truth. Migrants are not trying to do anything irregular or illegal. They’re just people fleeing from war and misery.”

Inigo Mijangos is chairman of Humanitarian Maritime Rescue. You can follow updates on the Aita Mari on Twitter here: @maydayterraneo.

Ben Cowles is the Star’s web editor. You can read more of his coverage on the refugee crisis, NGO rescuers and Europe’s war on them on his blog civilfleet.com. You can find him on Twitter via: @Cowlesz.

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