LAMPEDUSA ISLAND — In 2016, there were 10 NGOs operating rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, the deadliest route for migrants trying to cross from Africa to Europe. Today, there are just three. That's mostly thanks to Italy's populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, an immigration hard-liner who's imposed harsh obstacles and penalties on humanitarian rescue boats.
But some of the rescuers won't be deterred from what they see as their moral duty.
“I don’t have any doubt that this is a thing that should be done. I will not sleep if I leave people at sea because someone is telling me that you should not do it,” said Anabel Montes Mier, who leads the Spanish rescue boat Open Arms.
Mier is under investigation in Italy for a March 2018 rescue she carried out, and facing up to 12 years in prison if she’s convicted. She's among at least 38 people who have been investigated or charged with aiding illegal migration, an accusation that activists who rescue migrants are colluding with smugglers.
Still, the Open Arms is continuing its rescue missions, even despite a new security decree from Salvini that gives him the power to ban migrant rescue ships from entering Italian territorial water unless they have his permission. Since the decree went into effect, two boats have defied it and entered the port of Lampedusa to disembark migrants. Both boats have been impounded, and their operators face fines of up to 50,000 euros.
Mier and other activists say they’re protected under the International Law of the Sea and that taking migrants back to war-torn Libya would be a crime.
VICE News talked to Mier along with a rescued Cameroon refugee — and some Italian locals who aren't sure if they should trust the NGOs.