“I trust humanity in spite of everything.”

Visit of a Barcelona community to the Open Arms ship, which has rescued some 70,000 migrants from drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean, and faces serious barriers, especially from Italy, to continue carrying out its mission.

A few weeks ago, some sisters of the community had the opportunity to visit the Open Arms ship of the organization of the same name, anchored in the port of Barcelona. We imagine that you know this organization through the media, when it has been reported that some of its ships have been denied entry into ports or have been blocked in a port or are being harassed in court.

Proactiva Open Arms (OA) is an initiative of two rescuers from Badalona (Barcelona) born after their experience as volunteers in Lesbos (Greece) rescuing thousands of people fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. They then decided to found the organization to rescue people fleeing in small boats in order to reach a safe port, which in this area are practically only Italian ports.

Its action is based on the Law of the Sea and international conventions [1]. They consider that human life deserves the utmost protection and, therefore, oblige the captain of any ship to render aid and bring castaways in distress to safety, and failure to render aid is a felony. Rescue is a moral and legal obligation.

They told us during the visit that, through international radar alerts or from other ships, they know the situation of the boats, they go there and inform the Italian authorities so that they can tell them in which port they should disembark them, but each time they make them travel more miles, they make their work more difficult by sending them to distant ports, up to three more days of navigation, from the place of rescue. As Óscar Camps, founder of OA, says: “First they ask you to help with dozens of rescues because the Coast Guard has no fuel, but then they apply the “Meloni Decree” that limits rescues to one. It is politics trying to deform international maritime law..” And the consequences are more days of navigation with the consequent suffering of the people, as well as more maintenance costs, since in one hour of maritime navigation fuel is consumed to the value of more than 1000 euros.

Unlike Spain, which has its own Maritime Rescue [2], Italy delegates its functions to NGOs, although without providing the means and even now, even more than before, harassing them and blocking their rescue activity. Open Arms has faced a number of legal proceedings and, for example, last August, Italy fined them €10,000 and 20 days of administrative detention for saving 176 people in three rescue operations. The boat has official capacity for 300 people and vests and equipment for many more, so “if, after having made a rescue, we find other people in danger along the way, we do not leave them adrift, we rescue them as well. In each mission, we perform the necessary rescues“The activist in charge of the visit told us.

Despite the many difficulties they have gone through, Open Arms has already completed 8 years this September 2023. And, in this time, they have rescued almost 70,000 people in the central Mediterranean, which is where they operate, as it is the area that is not covered by government action.

They explained to us that if governments had a safe rescue policy in place, an estimated 28,000 more people could have been saved in these 8 years than the estimated 28,000 people who died at sea during this period. The Mediterranean, a meeting and exchange place of so many cultures for centuries, is becoming a graveyard in the face of our inaction. There is no European political will to protect people, but to protect fortress Europe and so we find, for example, that the Pact on Migration and Asylum, proposed by the European Commission, has made no progress since 2020. The current political trend is to toughen the measures by outsourcing maritime rescue to Libya and land rescue to other states such as Morocco, Turkey, etc., where protection is not guaranteed; thus increasing deportations and detentions of asylum seekers, including minors. The asylum procedure at the border that is to be implemented has no guarantees since, in the case of asylum seekers, they will be preventively detained until their asylum request is resolved, including children over 12 years of age. In addition, more than 1,000 km of land walls have been built since the 1990s. And although efforts to keep them out of Europe focus much more on people on the move trying to reach Europe by sea, these are only about 15% of the total as most of them enter through airports without so many impediments. Immigration policies separate those who are entitled to rights and those who are not.

Organizations such as Open Arms are able to act thanks to the strong support of civil society. In more than one of our churches there have been collections to support them.

In the midst of this reality, Óscar Camps is a man of hope and on his Twitter feed he says “I trust in humanity, despite everything“.

Montse Fenosa Choclán, ccv


[1] Cf. Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea onthe duty to render assistance, Regulation 33 of Chapter V of the SOLAS Convention and Article 2.1.10 of the SAR Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.

[2] Although with limited means, they are often overwhelmed.