Spain reluctantly allows Open Arms to leave port with aid supplies for migrants

Rescue charity ship Open Arms received the green light to set sail from the port of Barcelona on Wednesday but will not be allowed to return to the central Mediterranean to save migrants.

Spain reluctantly allows Open Arms to leave port with aid supplies for migrants
Members of NGO Proactiva Open Arms place a lifejacket on the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona in 2018 to protest Italy and Malta refusal to give their migrant rescue ship access. Photo: AFP

Spain has grudgingly allowed humanitarian aid vessels to depart for the Greek islands where they want to deliver aid supplies to migrant camps, NGOs reported on Wednesday. 

Spanish authorities in mid-January denied permission for the ship to leave Barcelona, arguing Spain has no maritime rescue jurisdiction off the Libyan coast where the Open Arms operated.

The government also feared giving Open Arms the green lights would anger Mediterranean countries such as Italy if they sailed through the ocean looking for and rescuing migrants.

But Spanish migrant rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms which operates the ship said in a statement it had been authorised to head to the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos to deliver “humanitarian material”.

“After being blocked in the port for 100 days, it will set sail, but without authorisation to enter the SAR (search and rescue) zone of the central Mediterranean,” it added.

Pope Francis criticised the Spanish government's decision to block the ship in Barcelona during an interview broadcast on March 31 on Spanish TV channel La Sexta, saying it was “a great injustice”.

“Why is it done? So they drown?,” he asked.

Proactiva Open Arms operates between Libya and southern Europe, coming to the aid of migrants who get into difficulties during the dangerous sea crossing from northern Africa. It says it has rescued nearly 60,000 lives since it was founded in 2015.

The decision to keep the Open Arms in Barcelona marked a change in policy for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority socialist government, which made international headlines shortly after it come to power in June by allowing another rescue boat, the Aquarius, to dock in Spain with more than 600 migrants on board after Italy and Malta refused them entry. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.