The captain of a controversial ship that saved migrants in the Mediterranean Sea has refused to accept a medal for her work.
Pia Klemp, who is German, gained attention for rescuing thousands of stranded migrants with her crew as part of the nongovernmental organization Sea Watch International. For her efforts, she reportedly faces up to 20 years in prison in Italy, where the hard-line anti-immigrant government accused her of assisting illegal immigration.
In a Facebook message published Tuesday night, Klemp announced that she was rejecting the Grand Vermeil Medal, which the city of Paris awards for bravery. She told Mayor Anne Hidalgo that the city was brimming with hypocrisy.
"Your police [steal] blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers. ... You want to give me a medal for actions that you fight in your own ramparts," Klemp wrote in the scathing post.
"It is time we call out hypocrite honorings and fill the void with social justice," she said.
She went on to say that people don't need medals. "We do not need authorities deciding about who is a 'hero' and who is 'illegal,' " she said. "In fact they are in no position to make this call, because we are all equal."
Klemp and nine of her shipmates have been under investigation in Italy after authorities impounded her ship, the Iuventa, in August 2017.
For years, authorities there have railed against work by rescue organizations like Sea Watch that pick up stranded migrants fleeing the Libyan coast for Europe. More recently, Italy's populist interior minister, Matteo Salvini, introduced a controversial security decree banning NGO migrant ships from entering Italian ports. As a result, Klemp and her team have been accused of aiding human trafficking.
The Iuventa, formerly a fishing vessel, is estimated to have saved 14,000 people.
As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reported, migrants from Libya and other countries torn apart by violence had been risking their lives crossing the rough waters of the Mediterranean, arriving on European shores in huge numbers for several years. But as of 2019 there has been a dramatic reduction in asylum-seekers.
"There's been a huge drop in the first six months of this year — 2,100, compared with about 14,300 the year before. That's an 85% drop," Poggioli said.
The prestigious medal for bravery was awarded to Klemp and Captain Carola Rackete in July. Like Klemp, Rackete defied Italian authorities when she rescued more than 40 migrants off the coast of Libya and rammed her way into a port on the Italian island of Lampedusa. She was subsequently arrested and charged with human smuggling, but the charges were dropped.
Klemp's refusal to accept the medal comes on the heels of a 19-day standoff between a Spanish rescue ship called Open Arms and the Italian government. On Tuesday an Italian court ordered the seizure of the ship and the evacuation of everyone onboard on Lampedusa. Five countries belonging to the European Union have agreed to accept the migrants.
Both the German and French governments have criticized Italy over the treatment of migrants, Klemp and Rackete. Salvini's retort is that the EU's other 27 member countries should open their borders to welcome the influx.
"The City of Paris is fully mobilised to support the refugees, to shelter them and ensure a dignified respect for their humanity," Hidalgo's office told Reuters.