MADRID - A Spanish navy frigate sailed from Cadiz Wednesday to escort the humanitarian vessel Open Arms back from Italy with a token number of 10 refugees Spain has agreed to take in what could be the Barcelona-based ship's last voyage under mounting pressure to stop rescuing shipwrecked African migrants.
The Italian government said Tuesday it would hold the ship for two weeks to conduct an investigation after it was allowed to land with 80 migrants following a 20-day ordeal at sea. Interior ministry officials suggested Spain should take all the migrants as the ship's voyage originated from there.
In an apparent policy shift by Spain's socialist government, top officials publicly threatened to clamp a $1 million fine on the Open Arms charity after its latest "unauthorized" rescue of 160 refugees off Libya's coast.
Italy also has moved to impound the ship. The humanitarian ordeal caused by the country's refusal to accept the refugees touched off a government crisis, and led to tense negotiations with the European Union to determine the fate of the migrants on board.
"The Open Arms does not have permission to rescue, and the captain was informed of this by the minister of public works. It has a license for humanitarian aid and to transport supplies from the viewpoint of Spanish law," Spain's deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, said in a radio interview Wednesday. "We are all subject to the law and everyone knows what they can or cannot do and no one is exempt from this, including this ship."
Legal spokesmen for Open Arms have said they were only complying with their obligation under international maritime law to rescue shipwrecked survivors at sea and that no charges have yet been filed.
The Open Arms pulled into the Italian port of Lampedusa Tuesday night, following a three-week standoff during which the Italian government refused safe harbor. The governments of France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Romania agreed to distribute the migrants among their respective countries, but political strains caused by the tense episode led to the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Italy has been closing its ports to humanitarian vessels carrying migrants from sinking barges off North Africa. A backlash against permissive immigration policies that allowed more than 100,000 refugees to reach Italy in past years boosted the rise of right-wing populist politician Matteo Salvini, who is now interior minister.
Spain no longer welcoming
Spain stepped in last year, allowing Open Arms to bring refugees to the Spanish ports of Barcelona, Valencia and Algeciras. Conservative politicians accused the government of delivering an "open call" for tides of migrants to go to Spain and, as the number of arrivals surpassed 50,000 last year, the political consequences emerged.
The upstart far-right VOX party captured 10% of the vote and its first parliamentary seats based on calls for the expulsion of illegal immigrants. Socialists lost their regional bastion in Andalusia, the area hardest hit by mass landings of migrants.
VOX filed a lawsuit against Open Arms Wednesday, accusing the nongovernmental organization (NGO) of "promoting illegal immigration" and "human trafficking."
"Open Arms is not an NGO but an operating base of the extreme left," said VOX leader Santiago Abascal, who accused the organization of "attacking Italy and the European identity" by delivering " political merchandise."
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has vilified VOX and attacked center-right conservatives for dealing with the group. However, "there seems little doubt that he is running scared of anti-immigrant sentiment," Spanish law professor and political analyst Ramon Peralta said.
Sanchez lacks support in the country's parliament and may have to call new elections soon.
Open Arms was blocked from leaving the port of Barcelona for three months at the start of the year when authorities accused it of violating EU rules with its mass rescues and of lacking the necessary certification to take a large number of people on board. The ship was allowed to leave in April, but only to deliver supplies and humanitarian aid to refugee camps in the Greek island of Lesbos.