The humanitarian charity operating the Open Arms ship saving the lives of refugees and migrants at risk in the Mediterranean Sea may face a $1m fine from Spanish authorities.
The prospect of a possible penalty comes after a protracted standoff between the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms and Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini finally came to an end.
The Open Arms ship had for days been stuck off the Italian island of Lampedusa as Salvini refused to let it dock.
But as tensions on board soared and Spain dispatched a military ship to assist in the arrival of the stranded people to a Spanish port, an Italian prosecutor eventually ordered they be brought ashore.
“The Open Arms doesn’t have a permit to rescue,” Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo told Spanish radio.
“This is a state ruled by law, everyone knows what they can do, what they can’t.”
The Open Arms had in April been authorised to leave Barcelona, where it was immobilised for three months, to transport humanitarian aid to Greece.
It was reportedly banned from heading to the seas off Libya, where people attempt the perilous journey to Europe on rickety boats, but went anyway.
A document by the directorate-general for Spain’s merchant navy sent to AFP news agency by the Proactiva Open Arms charity said it risks a fine of up to 901,000 euros ($1m) for violating this ban.
Returning with more than 140 migrants on board, the ship wanted to dock in Lampedusa, the nearest safe port. Malta is a similar distance to the area in which the refugees and migrants were rescued.
But Salvini, who has banned all NGO rescue boats from entering Italian ports, prevented the ship from landing on Italian land.
As the days went by, tensions rose on the ship with some people on board for 19 days after being picked up at sea, many thought to be suffering from post-traumatic stress.
That prompted the prosecutor’s eventual order on Tuesday to bring the 83 who remained ashore.
There were initially 147 people, mainly from African countries, on the ship but as the days passed, some were evacuated for medical care and all children were allowed to disembark.
Six European Union countries – France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg – have offered to take them in.