UK firefighters have protested outside the Italian embassy in London in support of a Spanish firefighter facing prison for rescuing refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean.
Britain’s Fire Brigades Union have called on the Italian government to drop its prosecution and end the criminalising of rescuing drowning refugees.
Spanish firefighter Miguel Roldán faces 20 years in prison for helping to rescue drowning refugees in the Mediterranean. Italian authorities have accused him of aiding illegal immigration and working with human traffickers, amidst pressure from far-right politician Matteo Salvini.
Italy has stepped up its hard-line stance against migrants since the appointment of far-right politician Matteo Salvini as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior. In response to pleas from humanitarian groups, the leader of the anti-immigrant League party tweeted that “The ports have been, and remain, CLOSED”.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:
“The charges against Miguel must be dropped. Firefighting is a humanitarian profession and Miguel was carrying out humanitarian work. We cannot stand idly by while one of our own is punished for trying to save lives.
“Across Europe, Salvini and politicians of his ilk are spreading hatred. We will not allow racists and fascists to divide us. We stand with those fleeing war and terror who seek safety, refuge and security.”
Italy is not the only European country to take a harsh line endangering the lives of thousands attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing in overcrowded vessels that are barely seaworthy.
Royal Navy and German ships have been withdrawn from the task force to save people drowning in substandard boats provided by people traffickers.
European countries are set to withdraw sea patrols altogether that have saved the lives of thousands making the risky crossing across the Mediterranean from North Africa. Not only are ships to be withdrawn but rescuing migrants will be criminalised in some cases.
Operation Sophia had been set up in 2015 to stem the loss of lives when 3,771 people died or went missing attempting to reach Europe crowded into rickety boats – often at gunpoint – by people traffickers.
But since Italy’s new far-right populist government threatened to veto the EU operation sea patrols will be withdrawn on 30 September.
Instead the Libyan coastguard are being ostensibly trained to step up, but refugee charities warn that they are unprepared for the scale of the problem, and the move leaves refugees at the mercy of Libyan detention centres, where abuse, rape and torture are rife.
Nottinghamshire firefighter Brendan Woodhouse was previously held off the coast of Italy for 10 days in a refugee-rescue vessel, as port authorities refused to let the boat land. The FBU called on Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to aid in his release.
Brendan spoke out at the protest. He said: “The criminalisation of humanitarian rescue has become all too commonplace. It’s a stain on European politics to see rescuers threatened with prison.
“In January I was part of a rescue crew threatened with prosecution for saving lives at sea. We had done nothing wrong. In the same way, Miguel is being taken through the courts. His crime? Saving lives!”
Providing assistance to people in distress at sea is a duty of all states and shipmasters under international maritime law.
According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2017, 3,116 people died in the leaky overcrowded vessels they are often forced into at gunpoint by traffickers.
2,832 people drowned in the central Mediterranean route where Miguel Roldán was working as a volunteer.
On a dark night in June 2017 firefighter Miguel Roldán set sail with two others in a small boat on a rescue mission responding to a call about a sinking boat.
They found the screaming migrants, but Rome’s Search and Rescue Center denied them permission to save them.
Instead they had to get permission from Libyan authorities which can take precious time to come through with people all the while drowning in the dark. Permission took 15 minutes to come through before they were able to start the rescue.
“We could only save half of them, many people drowned,” said the 32-year-old firefighter from Málaga.
Along with nine other volunteers, Roldan is now facing 20 years behind bars for allegedly aiding traffickers and illegal immigration by this and other rescues.