An NGO vessel impounded by the Italian authorities in Pozzallo, Sicily, after rescuing 218 migrants at sea last month has been released by the Ragusa court.

The court noted that while the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms had the duty to save migrants in distress, it was not its role to resolve a long-standing issue with Malta.

The vessel was impounded after Italian prosecutors accused the NGO of ignoring instructions to take the rescued migrants to Malta, the closest safe port, during the rescue operation.

The Open Arms, however, headed to Pozzallo, the NGO insisting Maltese authorities did not offer to host the migrants.

According to the Ragusa court, though Malta was deemed to be the safest port closest to the rescue, “the NGO was not expected to solve a long-standing issue on the interpretation of maritime safety rules.

“Proactiva Open Arms cannot be expected to solve the Malta problem where it comes to migration and maritime rules.”

Despite being responsible for a large search and rescue area, Malta insists migrants rescued within it should not necessarily be landed on the island but in the territory of the closest country. In most cases, this means Italy, because Lampedusa is closer to Libya, the point of departure of most of the Mediterranean crossings.

Italy and the other countries in the region dispute this interpretation.

Through an undisclosed agreement between Malta and Italy, reached when Matteo Renzi was prime minister, the Italian government decided to accept all migrants rescued in the Maltese SAR area amid reports of some kind of an arrangement between Rome and Valletta.

The political forces that prevailed in last month’s general election in Italy insist that all should share in the burden and not Italy alone.

The Spanish rescue operation was not within Malta’s search and rescue region but closer to the area falling under the responsibility of Libya. The NGO insisted on taking the migrants in difficulty on board its ship despite orders by the Libyan coastguard to return them to Libya.

This week, the Italian courts said the NGO had acted correctly, since Libya was not considered a safe place to return migrants wanting to cross to Europe.

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