Arms open: Head of mission describes refugees’ desperation

A Palermo court has heard migrants stranded aboard the Open Arms rescue vessel in 2019 were suffering from “disastrous conditions” and psychological distress. Former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is on trial for refusing to let the migrants disembark.

Annabelle Montes, head of mission for the Spanish NGO that runs the Open Arms ship, told a Sicilian court about the experiences of migrants who were rescued at sea in 2019 and stranded for days on board due to a travel ban. landing at Lampedusa. Montes said there were two bathrooms for more than 100 people, rationed water and clothes, refugees huddled on the ship’s deck in dire hygienic conditions and in psychological distress.

Montes testified on May 13 in Palermo during a hearing in the trial against then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is accused of kidnapping and dereliction of duty for his refusal to let the Open Arms land. migrants.

“The hygienic, physical and psychological conditions of the migrants were extremely difficult. People were desperate,” Montes said. She described to the court the three rescue operations carried out by the NGO between August 1 and 9, 2019 and the difficult days that followed.

Difficult conditions

The migrants “shared bars of soap,” Montes said during the hearing. Some of them “had burns caused by a mixture of gasoline and seawater”.

In the days following the rescue operations, the ship asked Malta, Tunisia and Italy for a safe port to disembark the migrants. Italy had already told the NGO it could not enter its national waters, Montes said.

“As the days went by, the conditions for the migrants and the sea became dire,” she explained. As soon as the NGO learned that a Regional Administrative Court (TAR) had overturned a ban on entering Italian waters, the boat set sail for Lampedusa, “warning the authorities who authorized us while continuing to prohibit disembarkation.

The stalemate has led some refugees to “rash acts”, including throwing themselves into the sea, Montes told the court. “Only the intervention of the prosecutors of Agrigento (Sicily) unblocked the situation, allowing the migrants to disembark,” said Montes.

‘Frustrating to be judged’: Salvini

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, who attended the hearing, listened to Montes as well as the testimony of Fabrizio Mancini, who was the director of the Interior Ministry’s immigration service. Mancini pointed out that decisions about assigning a safe harbor were made by Interior Ministry personnel.

“I believe it is not possible for a minister not to know what his staff are doing,” Mancini told the court.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys clashed during the hearing, including during Mancini’s deposition. Salvini’s lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, repeatedly accused the prosecutor of interrupting the witness, who was defending Salvini’s position.

“It is part of the duties of an interior minister to ensure public order and the security of his country,” he said.

“At the time there was ISIS and the concern that the large number of people arriving might include criminals was not outlandish – I think it was a legitimate concern.”

During a break in the hearing due to an electrical malfunction in the room of the Ucciardone bunker, where the trial was taking place, Salvini stressed: “It is frustrating to be tried in a court that has hosted the worst mafia members, after fighting human trafficking.”

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